This one isn’t one species actually, it’s a diverse group of over 1400 species…bats. Some eat insects, some eat fruit, some eat small critters like frogs and some eat blood (yes, vampire bats are real). But, they’re all flying mammals that live in large groups.
Bats are obviously a concern because this virus (as well as its close relatives, the initial SARS virus and MERS virus) came from bats. Bats can be little coronavirus factories. However, there are huge differences between bat species. We shouldn’t really be talking about ‘bats’ as the source of this virus. We should be talking about Chinese horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus sinicus) as the likely source.
Just because SARS-CoV-2 can live in one type of bat, it doesn’t mean it can infect them all. That’s important because bats are incredibly widespread internationally and often travel long distances. We don’t want this virus in different bat populations. The more we can keep this a human disease, the better, since it’s easier to control something in one species vs many.
That’s one reason field research involving bats has been curtailed or suspended in many areas. We don’t want people getting near bats, to reduce the risk of infected people spreading the virus to bats. Odds of that happening are pretty low, given the small number of people that do that type of work and limited direct contact with bats; however, it’s a small risk with potentially very big implications, so curtailing field research is logical.
More broadly, we don’t know the potential range of bats that might be susceptible. Predictive studies based on ACE2 receptors (as I continually say are useful but far from definitive) suggest that most bat species are probably not susceptible. However, many might be and we have to be careful with these predictive studies. As you can see from the Figure, this study predicts horseshoe bats aren’t susceptible, despite the fact they are a leading candidate for being the initial source.
Experimental studies are one way to sort this out, but they aren’t common because they are expensive and difficult to do with bats (let alone when you toss a dangerous virus into the mix).
One experimental study looked at fruit bats (Rousettus aegypticus) and found that 7/9 exposed bats developed a transient infection. One of three bats that were placed in contact with those became infected. That’s a bit concerning since this species can be found in parts of Africa, Asia and Mediterranean areas.
Research involving other common bat species is lacking. So, prudence would dictate that we treat all bats as potentially susceptible until we know they are not. There are various reasons to avoid contact with bats (rabies being a big one) but keeping bats away from people and people away from bat habitats is wise….particularly now.
And, to end off….yes, bats can carry lots of potentially harmful viruses. But, they also do good things ecologically, like eating tonnes of mosquitoes (which are obviously big disease vectors too). Don’t blame all this on bats. We’re the ones who got it from bats and then spread it nicely around the world.
Horseshoe bat image from http://www.bio.bris.ac.uk/research/bats/China%20bats/rhinolophussinicus.htm