16th April 2020
[UPDATED 02/06/20 with link to Natural England guidance - see below.]
On 12th April the IUCN Bat Specialist Group issued recommendations around the suspension of bat fieldwork, where handling bats or entering roosts was involved. The IUCN recommendations were issues to reduce any possibility of transmission of the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) from humans to bats. At this time there is a high level of uncertainty about the likelihood of such transmission being possible. The recommendations apply the precautionary principle whilst a group of researchers are undertaking rapid risk assessments and we hope they will share their findings as soon as these are available for each global geographic region (they are starting with North America).
The IUCN produce guidance that has world-wide coverage, but individual countries may tailor that advice to fit their own situation. Along with other bat conservation organisations, we are working with a global network of experts to understand the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from people to other animals and to evaluate if and what additional measures should be adopted to reduce risk.
The precursor to SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in bats and jumped species (probably through an intermediate, or vector, species to humans). It may be that the virus is becoming more human-adapted and it may be difficult for it to jump back. There are over 1400 species of bat around the world with a broad range of ecological needs and adaptations. Therefore, there will also be differences in susceptibility between bat species, as we have seen with earlier SARS-like viruses.
Based on the Government’s guidance on social distancing and hygiene, we have temporarily suspended the National Bat Monitoring Programme surveys apart from people doing counts of roosts in their own homes. Fieldwork on collaborative projects, such as Back from the Brink, has been stopped and plans for field work on the National Nathusius’ Pipistrelle Project have been halted for now. The Natural England Volunteer Bat Roost Visitor service (which BCT administers under contract) has stopped all visits (whilst offering a remote service for urgent cases). We have amended the way in which the Bat Care Network operates. The changes to all these activities to date are all in accordance with the UK Government’s guidelines for human health protection which remains at the forefront of our minds.
In relation to animal health, advice given to BCT from Defra is that if bat work is essential (in line with Government guidance) and cannot be postponed it can continue if good disease risk management practices, including appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and social distancing are implemented. All other work should be postponed. During the global shortage of some elements of PPE we recommend the suspension of any bat survey activities that require equipment to be purchased which is in short supply, where the priority must be for use in the NHS and other key workers.
Professional bat workers should seek advice from CIEEM (or their equivalent professional body) and/or the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Agency licensing their fieldwork (Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales, and Northern Ireland Environment Agency) if they have questions around continuation of their activities. On 29/05/20 Natural England issued guidance from Defra on “COVID-19 and interacting with wildlife for the purposes surveying and mitigation works”.
Please note everyone should follow the NHS guidance on self-isolation: if you or anyone you live with is showing any signs of COVID-19, you should not be leaving your home for any reason, and certainly not undertaking any form of bat survey or handling animals (including any bats in care).
The COVID-19 pandemic is a dynamic situation with new information becoming available on an almost daily basis. We will continue to work with the relevant Government Agencies and other advisors to keep our information as update to date as is reasonably possible.