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What if humans are spreading COVID-19 to other mammals?

Humans are most likely passing COVID-19 along to other animals, according to a new study published by WILEY. The researchers noted that if SARS-CoV-2 could be sustainably transmitted among mammals, this would create animal reservoirs that could serve as a persistent source of new COVID-19 outbreaks.

Furthermore, the spread of COVID-19 in wild mammal populations has the potential to impact species that are endangered. 

“It has been a long time since the world has experienced a pandemic with such a rapid devastating impact as the current COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote the study authors. “The causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is unusual in that it appears capable of infecting many different mammal species.” 

“As a significant proportion of people worldwide are infected with SARS-CoV-2 and may spread the infection unknowingly before symptoms occur or without any symptoms ever occurring, there is a non-negligible risk of humans spreading SARS-CoV-2 to wildlife, in particular to wild non-human mammals.” 

“Because of SARS-CoV-2’s apparent evolutionary origins in bats and reports of humans transmitting the virus to pets and zoo animals, regulations for the prevention of human‐to‐animal transmission have so far focused mostly on these animal groups.”

After analyzing recent studies and reports that show that a wide range of distantly related mammals are likely susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, the experts are urging people to take sanitary precautions when they are in contact with any other mammal species.

“Preventing human‐to‐wildlife SARS-CoV-2 transmission is important to protect these animals (some of which are classed as threatened) from disease, but also to avoid establishment of novel SARS-CoV-2 reservoirs in wild mammals,” wrote the experts. They said the risk of repeated infection in human populations from such wildlife reservoirs could severely damage efforts to get SARS-CoV-2 under control.

During activities where humans have direct or indirect interaction with wild mammals, such as through wildlife research or forestry work, the researchers recommend physical distancing, wearing face masks and gloves, and frequent decontamination.

“We further recommend active surveillance of domestic and feral animals that could act as SARS-CoV-2 intermediate hosts between humans and wild mammals.”

Study lead author Dr. Sophie Gryseels is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona and the University of Antwerp.

“We really should avoid turning our pandemic into a multi-species problem,” said Dr. Gryseels. “It’s difficult enough to control the SARS-CoV-2 in human populations–imagine what it will be like if it spreads among wild mammals.’

The study is published in the journal Mammal Review.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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