Worldwide, two cats, two dogs and now also a Malayan tiger have contracted the virus. Should we be concerned now?
Nadia, a four-year-old female Malayan tiger living in the American Bronx Zoo, has been infected with the corona virus. That is what the Wildlife Conservation Society announces. It is the first non-domesticated animal affected by the virus. Her sister, two Siberian tigers and three African lions also have symptoms of the virus among the members. According to the WCS, the tiger is said to have contracted the virus from an infected caregiver. But to what extent do animals actually threaten the spread of the virus?
While the affected animals all suffer from a dry cough and loss of appetite, there doesn’t seem to be much going on. However, researchers do not know whether this will change. « It is not known how this disease affects large cats, » WCS writes. “Different species can react very differently to new infections. That is why we will continue to monitor the animals closely. ”
In addition to the Malayan tiger, reports have previously been made of a small number of pets that have been infected with the virus. So far, two cats and two dogs have tested positive for the virus. « These pets lived with infected human owners, » said researcher Jacqui Norris, of the University of Sydney. « The timing and the fact that the rash was positive shows that the virus has been transmitted from human to animal. »
The new coronavirus emerged in China in late December. It is suspected that the virus originally lived in a bat and then ended up via a host animal – possibly the civet – at a Chinese animal market, from where it spread at lightning speed (read all about it here). Tens of thousands of people in China were infected in a short time and the virus has already appeared in many countries. In total, more than a million people are now infected with the virus. And nearly 70,000 people have died from the virus. The country most affected today is the US, with over 337,000 infections. And also in Spain and Italy, the virus has hit hard with more than 131,000 and 128,000 infections respectively. Nearly 18,000 people have now become infected in the Netherlands, of whom 1867 have died. And we are not there yet; according to researchers, the number of infections in many countries has yet to peak.
The question now is whether, if humans can give the virus to animals, animals can then transmit the virus to humans again. « Apart from the very first transmission in the Chinese Wuhan market where the virus emerged, there seems to be no evidence that animals play a role in the further transmission of COVID-19 to humans, » the WCS said. Scientist Gilles Guillemin, who has already studied various viruses and who is also working on a large project investigating the impact of microorganisms on human health, thinks so. « There is no direct evidence that cats, for example, could infect humans, » he says. The World Health Organization also claims that there is so far nothing to indicate that a dog, cat or any animal can transmit COVID-19 to humans.
Animal to animal
Nor does it seem at this stage that, for example, an infected cat can very easily transmit the virus to a species of its own. “Previous studies on SARS-CoV – the related coronavirus that causes SARS disease – show that cats can become infected and then transmit it to each other. But during the SARS pandemic at the time, there was no indication that SARS-CoV was widely spread among domestic cats or that it was being passed from cats to humans, ”says Guillemin.
However, it appears that animals are susceptible to the virus. And not just cats, dogs and a single tiger. « Ferrets are also very susceptible to infection with the COVID-19 coronavirus, » says Guillemin. Although this does not necessarily have to be negative. « It makes the animals suitable for testing potential vaccines and medicines, » Guillemin continues. It also appears that pangolins also carry a variety of coronavriuses. In fact, the Javan pangolus from Southeast Asia even appears to carry a virus strain that is 92.4 percent genetically comparable to COVID-19.
Some scientists are also a bit concerned about the fate of great apes. Because researchers cannot rule out the possibility that the virus can also spread to them. Although it is currently unclear whether the new coronavirus can also infect great apes, this does not seem inconceivable. « Apes are genetically very close to humans and can therefore be particularly susceptible to COVID-19, » said Guillemin. Moreover, we know that the coronavirus HCoV-OC43 is transmissible from human to monkey anyway. This virus causes colds in humans, but when humans transmit it to chimpanzees, it can lead to respiratory diseases in these apes.
Overall, the limited information we have available so far seems to suggest that animals are not such a major threat in the spread of the coronavirus. Although researchers do not hesitate. « Coronaviruses have a high mutation rate, » says Guillemin. This means that if it mutates further among animals, it may still cause a second, new coronavirus outbreak. But now we are far ahead of things. Scientists primarily call on zookeepers and pet owners to take extra care. The advice is to avoid contact with animals as much as possible. In addition, hygienic measures must always be taken when handling and caring for animals. This includes washing hands thoroughly with soap or disinfectants before and after contact with animals. In this way we protect not only ourselves, but also the animals. Because right now we pose a bigger threat to them than the other way around.
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