Dozens of mammals could be susceptible to COVID-19, according to a new study from University College London. The experts identified 26 animals that are regularly in contact with people and are also vulnerable to infection.
The study used computer modeling to investigate how the virus may infect the ACE2 protein receptor in 215 animal species. The researchers wanted to know how these receptors are different from those in humans, and how these differences may reduce the stability of binding between the virus protein and host protein.
The researchers found that binding could be just as strong in some animals, including sheep, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutan, and bonobo – many of which are endangered in the wild.
“We wanted to look beyond just the animals that had been studied experimentally, to see which animals might be at risk of infection, and would warrant further investigation and possible monitoring,” said study lead author Professor Christine Orengo.
“The animals we identified may be at risk of outbreaks that could threaten endangered species or harm the livelihoods of farmers. The animals might also act as reservoirs of the virus, with the potential to re-infect humans later on, as has been documented on mink farms.”
To gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 risks differ across various species, the researchers conducted more detailed structural analyses for certain animals. They also compared the findings to existing research to set thresholds that predict which animals are at risk of infection and which ones are likely not.
While the study revealed that most birds, fish, and reptiles are not at risk, it showed that the majority of the mammals examined have the potential to develop a COVID-19 infection.
“The details of host infection and severity of response are more complex than just the interactions of the spike protein with ACE2, so our research is continuing to explore interactions involving other host virus proteins,” said Professor Orengo.
The findings mostly agree with experiments and known cases of infection, including those among domestic cats, dogs, mink, lions, and tigers.
“Unlike laboratory-based experiments, the computational analyses we devised can be run automatically and rapidly,” said study first author Su Datt Lam. “Therefore, these methods could be applied easily to future virus outbreaks that, unfortunately, are becoming more common due to human encroachment into natural habitats.”
“To protect animals, as well as to protect ourselves from the risk of one day catching COVID-19 from an infected animal, we need large-scale surveillance of animals, particularly pets and farm animals, to catch cases or clusters early on while they’re still manageable,” said study co-author Professor Joanne Santini.
“It may also be important to employ hygiene measures when dealing with animals, similar to the behaviors we’ve all been learning this year to reduce transmission, and for infected people to isolate from animals as well as from other people.”
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.