Begin typing your search...

Deepening Crisis: COVID infections in animals prompt scientific concern

The decision this week by the Danish government to kill millions of mink because of coronavirus concerns, effectively wiping out a major national industry, has put the spotlight on simmering worries among scientists and conservationists about the vulnerability of animals to the pandemic virus, and what infections among animals could mean for humans.

Deepening Crisis: COVID infections in animals prompt scientific concern
Chimpanzees; Danish veterinary and emergency management officials removed minks for culling


The most disturbing possibility is that the virus could mutate in animals and become more transmissible or more dangerous to humans. In Denmark, the virus has shifted from humans to mink and back to humans, and has mutated in the process. Mink are the only animals known to have passed the coronavirus to humans, except for the initial spillover event from an unknown species. Other animals, like cats and dogs, have been infected by exposure to humans, but there are no known cases of people being infected by exposure to their pets.

The versions of the virus that have mutated in mink and spread to humans are not more transmissible or causing more severe illness in humans. But one of the variants, found in 12 people so far, was less responsive to antibodies in lab tests. Danish health authorities worried that the effectiveness of vaccines in development might be diminished for this variant, and decided to take all possible measures to stop its spread. This included killing all of the country’s mink and effectively locking down the northern part of the country, where the mutated virus was found. The UK has banned travelers from Denmark who are not UK citizens.

The World Health Organization and scientists outside of Denmark have said they have yet to see evidence that this variant will have any effect on vaccines. They have not, however, criticised Denmark’s decision to cull its mink population. Mink are not the only animals that can be infected with the coronavirus. Dogs, cats, tigers, hamsters, monkeys, ferrets and genetically engineered mice have also been infected. Dogs and cats, including tigers, seem to suffer few ill effects. The other animals, which are used in laboratory experiments, have exhibited varying responses. Farmed mink, however, have died in large numbers in Europe and in the US, perhaps partly because of the crowded conditions on those ranches, which could increase the amount of exposure.

Public health experts worry, however, that any species capable of infection could become a reservoir that allowed the virus to re-emerge at any time and infect people. The virus would likely mutate in other animal species, as it has been shown to do in mink. Although most mutations are likely to be harmless, SARS-CoV-2 conceivably could recombine with another coronavirus and become more dangerous. Conservation experts also worry about the effect on animal species that are already in trouble.

One approach to studying susceptibility has been to look at the genomes of animals and see which ones have a genetic sequence that codes for a protein on cells called an ACE2 receptor, which allows the virus to latch on. One team of researchers studied the genomes of more than 400 animals. Another group did a similar study of primates, which are often infected with human respiratory viruses.

“One of the premises for doing this research was that we thought that great apes would be very at risk because of their close relationship to humans, genetically,” said Amanda D. Melin, an anthropologist at the University of Calgary and an author of the primate study.

But, she added, she and her colleagues also wanted to consider “all of the other primates and their potential risk.” In addition to investigating genomes, the team also did computer modeling of the interaction of the virus spike protein with different ACE2 receptors. The findings of both papers reinforced each other, revealing old world monkeys and all apes to be most at risk. Both papers were released as non-peer-reviewed studies earlier this year.

James Gorman is a science writer at large with NYT©2020

The New York Times

Visit to explore our interactive epaper!

Download the DT Next app for more exciting features!

Click here for iOS

Click here for Android

Next Story