COVID: Can animals catch the virus?

Numerous cases of coronavirus infections in cats, dogs, and other animals have surfaced since the pandemic’s beginning. The full reach of COVID-19 throughout the animal kingdom, however, hasn’t been well understood, but a new tool offers us clues.

Some answers can be found in a new worldwide database made in collaboration between researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna.

The first database of its kind, it tracks COVID-19 among animals and shows as of Wednesday evening there have been an estimated 2015 “infections” (virus present) and “exposures” (antibodies present) combined worldwide so far in 31 distinct species from 39 countries. The database notes that the number of cases in mink is inconsistently reported and likely underestimated.

According to the statistics, the estimated disease death rate among the 610 animal outbreaks tracked to date has been close to 3 per cent, with the majority of animal symptoms appearing as respiratory, gastrointestinal, or behavioural problems.

“The dashboard intends to support public education about the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission between humans and animals and raise public awareness about possible wildlife conservation issues posed by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic,” researchers say in a study accompanying the initial dashboard, published in the journal Nature in July.

The documented infections and exposures included in the dashboard were largely verified with laboratory tests and offer a solid base to build on, but researchers say it may be impossible to know the full impact of the coronavirus in the wild.

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The animals with the lion’s share of cases are mink, followed closely by cats and dogs, but cases have also been documented in beavers, hamsters, tigers, lions, and white-tailed deer.

The dashboard notes 86 cases documented in Canada, with 40 cases in white-tailed deer, 33 in mink, 12 in cats, and one infection in a dog.

The dashboard also shows which virus variant each animal was infected with.

“The continuous analysis of (COVID-19) occurrence data in animals is especially critical to adapting monitoring, surveillance and vaccination programs for animals and humans in a timely manner and evaluating the developing threat (COVID-19) represents for public and animal health as well as biodiversity and conservation,” the study notes.

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