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Hundreds of animal species potentially at risk from COVID-19 © Getty Images

Hundreds of animal species potentially at risk from COVID-19

Published: 29th August, 2020 at 08:00
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Around 40 per cent of these species are classified as "threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

More than 400 different species of vertebrates, including birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, could potentially contract the virus that causes COVID-19, researchers at the University of Davis, California have found.


The team used genomic analysis to compare the main cellular receptor for the virus, named SARS-CoV-2, in humans – angiotensin converting enzyme-2, or ACE2 – in 410 different species of vertebrates. ACE2 is found on many different types of cells and tissues, including cells lining the nose, mouth and lungs.

In humans, 25 amino acids that make up ACE2 are involved in the mechanism by which the virus binds to and gains entry into cells. So they wanted to investigate any similarities in animals.

“Animals with all 25 amino acid residues matching the human protein are predicted to be at the highest risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2 via ACE2,” said postdoctoral research assistant Joana Damas. “The risk is predicted to decrease the more the species' ACE2 binding residues differ from humans.”

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About 40 per cent of the species potentially susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 are classified as "threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and may be especially vulnerable to human-to-animal transmission.

This includes several critically endangered primate species, such as the Western lowland gorilla, Sumatran orangutan and Northern white-cheeked gibbon, that are predicted to be at very high risk of infection by SARS-CoV-2 via their ACE2 receptor.

Other animals flagged as high risk include marine mammals such as grey whales and bottlenose dolphins, as well as Chinese hamsters. Domestic animals such as cats, cattle and sheep were found to have a medium risk, and dogs, horses and pigs were found to have low risk for ACE2 binding.

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“The data provide an important starting point for identifying vulnerable and threatened animal populations at risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said lead author Prof Harris Lewin. “We hope it inspires practices that protect both animal and human health during the pandemic.”


The researchers note that the risks are based on computational results and the actual risks can only be confirmed through further experiments. Nevertheless, the findings should help scientists to zero in on which species might have served as an intermediate host in the wild and assist efforts to control a future outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infection in human and animal populations, they say.

Can my dog get coronavirus?

There have so far been a small number of cases of dogs testing positive for the coronavirus, including two in Hong Kong for dogs whose owners were hospitalised with COVID-19. The tests used on the dogs are the same as those used on people: nasal and oral swabs that test for the genetic material of the coronavirus.

However, both dogs had very low levels of the virus, and it’s not clear if they were infected or had just breathed in contaminated air. Neither dog showed any signs of illness, nor any immune response. If they were infected, then it was a very minor infection.

That said, pets do pose a risk of transmission if someone touches an animal that belongs to someone with COVID-19. Because of this, people who have symptoms of COVID-19 are advised to limit their contact with pets and wash their hands before and after interacting with them. For everyone else, keep regularly washing your hands and practise physical distancing, from people as well their pets.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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