Experts believe the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic began in horseshoe bats. Since the start of the pandemic, scientists have wondered if this virus can spread from humans back to animals, and which types of animals could be at risk. It’s important that researchers study how COVID-19 affects wild animals to ensure their safety and protect humans from new flare-ups of the coronavirus.
How COVID-19 Affects Wildlife
In humans, the virus that causes COVID-19 binds to the ACE2 receptor in our cells. Experts looked at other animals’ ACE2 sequences and predicted which species are at risk for the virus as well. Their studies showed that several types of animals are at risk for COVID-19. This may include wild animals and animals in captivity (like in zoos or farms).
Testing wild animals is important to locate any new COVID-19 cases. In areas with managed wild animal populations, it’s crucial to control and stop the spread of the virus. Early detection will help experts find the source of the infection and learn more about how it spreads within these species.
Researchers have tested over 50 animal species in multiple zoos and aquariums. The CDC has found COVID-19 infections in wild animals like big cats, otters, mink, non-human primates, and white-tailed deer. The number of confirmed species with COVID-19 continues to go up as the pandemic continues.
In zoos, experts haven’t seen any COVID-19 transmission from one managed species to another. All the infected animals got the virus from a human animal keeper who had COVID-19. Animals can become infected from contact with contaminated objects or surfaces, or aerosol (through the air) transmission.
But experts aren’t as concerned about COVID-19 outbreaks among animals in captivity. In these cases, animal caretakers can usually control the situation through quarantining, vaccination, or culling (selectively slaughtering animals). But it’s harder to control viruses when they occur in animals in the wild or farms or zoos.
Because of this, scientists around the world continue to study the risk of outbreaks in wild species. They constantly survey wildlife populations to catch an outbreak as soon as possible. Researchers test animals in zoos, homes, shelters, vet clinics, farms, and areas that surround these places. If they notice any positive COVID-19 cases, the country will alert the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).
Why Is This Important for Human Health?
Outbreaks of COVID-19 on mink farms suggest that infected animals may transmit the virus back to humans, but more research is needed. The CDC says there have also been outbreaks in white-tailed deer in several U.S. states. Researchers say the deer were not sick, and at this time, the risk of spreading to humans is low.
While animal-to-human transmission isn’t a main concern in the COVID-19 pandemic, this could change in the future. The main concern to our health is that animals may cause COVID-19 to later resurface in human populations. After global spread of COVID-19 in humans reduces, experts believe that wild animals with the virus could spark a new flare-up in people.
As COVID-19 spreads to different species, it adapts and mutates. Then, new types of the virus emerge. Over time, this can lead to variants that spread quicker or cause more severe illness. New types of the virus can influence the effectiveness of current COVID-19 therapies and vaccines. Since experts created these treatments to help earlier types of COVID-19, they may not work as well in the future if the virus continues to adapt and change.
Because of this, it’s very important to control any outbreaks, even if they’re in animal populations.
How to Keep Yourself Safe
While experts continue to study how COVID-19 affects animals, they do know that the risk of animal-to-human transmission is very low. There’s no need to harm or abandon wild animals out of fear of COVID-19.
But to be cautious, and to protect yourself from other possible diseases from wildlife animals, it’s important to take certain steps to reduce any risk of illness:
- Don’t feed wild animals or touch animal droppings.
- Keep yourself and your pets at a safe distance from wild animals.
- Wash your hands after working or playing outside.
- Don’t directly interact with orphaned animals. The parents usually return.
- Don’t touch or get close to a sick or dead animal.
- If you plan to eat legal game meat, read over your state’s wildlife agency guidelines.