SARS-CoV-2 in fruit bats, ferrets, pigs, and chickens: an experimental transmission study

Lancet Microbe. 2020 Sep;1(5):e218-e225. doi: 10.1016/S2666-5247(20)30089-6. Epub 2020 Jul 7.


Background: In December, 2019, a novel zoonotic severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus emerged in China. The novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) became pandemic within weeks and the number of human infections and severe cases is increasing. We aimed to investigate the susceptibilty of potential animal hosts and the risk of anthropozoonotic spill-over infections.

Methods: We intranasally inoculated nine fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus), ferrets (Mustela putorius), pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus), and 17 chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) with 105 TCID50 of a SARS-CoV-2 isolate per animal. Direct contact animals (n=3) were included 24 h after inoculation to test viral transmission. Animals were monitored for clinical signs and for virus shedding by nucleic acid extraction from nasal washes and rectal swabs (ferrets), oral swabs and pooled faeces samples (fruit bats), nasal and rectal swabs (pigs), or oropharyngeal and cloacal swabs (chickens) on days 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, and 21 after infection by quantitative RT-PCR (RT-qPCR). On days 4, 8, and 12, two inoculated animals (or three in the case of chickens) of each species were euthanised, and all remaining animals, including the contacts, were euthanised at day 21. All animals were subjected to autopsy and various tissues were collected for virus detection by RT-qPCR, histopathology immunohistochemistry, and in situ hybridisation. Presence of SARS-CoV-2 reactive antibodies was tested by indirect immunofluorescence assay and virus neutralisation test in samples collected before inoculation and at autopsy.

Findings: Pigs and chickens were not susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. All swabs, organ samples, and contact animals were negative for viral RNA, and none of the pigs or chickens seroconverted. Seven (78%) of nine fruit bats had a transient infection, with virus detectable by RT-qPCR, immunohistochemistry, and in situ hybridisation in the nasal cavity, associated with rhinitis. Viral RNA was also identified in the trachea, lung, and lung-associated lymphatic tissue in two animals euthanised at day 4. One of three contact bats became infected. More efficient virus replication but no clinical signs were observed in ferrets, with transmission to all three direct contact animals. Mild rhinitis was associated with viral antigen detection in the respiratory and olfactory epithelium. Prominent viral RNA loads of 0-104 viral genome copies per mL were detected in the upper respiratory tract of fruit bats and ferrets, and both species developed SARS-CoV-2-reactive antibodies reaching neutralising titres of up to 1/1024 after 21 days.

Interpretation: Pigs and chickens could not be infected intranasally by SARS-CoV-2, whereas fruit bats showed characteristics of a reservoir host. Virus replication in ferrets resembled a subclinical human infection with efficient spread. Ferrets might serve as a useful model for further studies-eg, testing vaccines or antivirals.

Funding: German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Viral
  • COVID-19* / veterinary
  • Chickens / genetics
  • Chiroptera* / genetics
  • Ferrets / genetics
  • RNA, Viral / genetics
  • Rhinitis*
  • SARS-CoV-2


  • Antibodies, Viral
  • RNA, Viral