Scientists are faced with a new problem related to the coronavirus: the risk of its transmission to wild animals. Veterinarian microbiologist Anna Fagre of Colorado State University details this in a new article, The Wired.
Usually, her job is to search for viruses in the wild, which can potentially be transmitted to humans. Now she and her colleagues have the opposite task: to find a way to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 to wild animals.
And this threat is serious: in recent years, even less common diseases have passed from humans to wild animals. Ebola passed from humans to monkeys in the early 2000s with catastrophic consequences; seals and sea lions were infected with swine flu in 2009-2011. Other respiratory viruses have learned to infect mountain gorillas, a subspecies that have already been given protected status.
If Sars-CoV-2 can indeed move to a new animal population, it could extend the pandemic indefinitely, provided the virus periodically moves between animals and humans. In addition, it will help the virus mutate further, potentially leading to the creation of new strains that are more infectious, deadly, and resistant to existing vaccines.
Over the past month, a series of new laboratory experiments at Colorado State University have demonstrated how quickly Sars-CoV-2 can mutate into a new species. When Fagre’s colleagues infected cats and dogs with the virus, they found that its spike protein had mutated after being transmitted by just three different animals.
In a similar experiment with deer mice, mutations appeared in just two transmissions. Fagre notes: “Almost the entire population of the virus acquired this new mutation in just a few cycles. These coronaviruses are very well transmitted between species. We’ve seen it before with Sars and Mers and now with Sars-CoV-2. ” If such mutations occur in uncontrolled conditions in the wild, the consequences for both animals and humans can be catastrophic.
Although pets have the greatest risk of transmission, since they are in constant contact with people, this is relatively not dangerous because they, as a rule, are located within the same house and, having become infected by their owners, will not be able to transmit it further.
Scientists are most concerned about wild animals potentially transmitting the virus uncontrollably, which will constantly be changing. If then the virus again gets to a person, there is no guarantee that the immunity will work.