What Do COVID-19 Infections in Animals Mean for Humans?

Scientists and animal conservationists are investigating the vulnerability of animals to the coronavirus and the implications of infected animals passing the virus to humans.

After discovering that the virus could be transmitted to humans through infected mink, the Danish government announced its decision to cull all 17 million of the nation’s farmed mink. Because the virus mutates in the transmission process, researchers are concerned that the mutated strains would be less responsive to a potential vaccine. There is no evidence that the mutated versions cause more severe or more transmissible disease, but one variant was found to be less responsive to antibodies in lab tests.

The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy, and the U.S. also have reported cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection in farmed mink. In addition to concerns about vaccine efficacy, public health experts worry that susceptible animal populations could become reservoirs for the virus, allowing it to reemerge in the human population at any time.

Researchers are studying a range of species from Beluga whales to deer mice for signs of coronavirus infection. “To date, we have tested 282 wildlife samples from 22 species, primarily bats in New England rehabilitation facilities, and we are happy to report that none have been positive,” said Kate Sawatzki, PhD, Animal Surveillance Coordinator at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts. They also tested 538 domestic pets, finding that dogs and cats exhibit few symptoms. There have been no known cases of humans contracting coronavirus from exposure to their pets.

Source: The New York Times, November 8, 2020.