SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, first infected humans after crossing species lines from an unknown animal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), scientists speculate that this animal was a bat, because the SARS-CoV-2 genome is closely related to coronaviruses observed in horseshoe bats in China. Until recently, this was believed to be the only incident of an animal infecting a human being with the novel coronavirus. Now, for the first time since that original transmission, we know that one more animal can transmit the coronavirus to humans: mink. Read on to learn more, and to find out how else you can catch the virus these days, check out The 4 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID During the Current Wave.
The cross-species transmission between mink and humans was discovered in Denmark, where millions of mink are bred and raised for the country's thriving fur industry. Danish officials sparked international outrage this week by announcing that they would exterminate their entire population of farmed mink—roughly 17 million animals—due to their ability to spread COVID to humans. The government has since retracted their decision after the public outcry, but hasn't ruled it out for the future.
Researchers have explained that while mink do not seem to cause a more severe form of the illness, the virus does mutate as it's passed between animals and humans. They fear that the particulars of these mutations could thwart the efficacy of vaccines, throwing progress into jeopardy.
As The New York Times explains, "Danish health authorities were concerned that one set of mutations in a variant of the virus called cluster 5, which had infected at least 12 people, could make a potential coronavirus vaccine less effective. One of the mutations occurs on a part of the virus—the spike protein—that is targeted by many potential vaccines. In lab studies, cells with this variant of the virus were exposed to antibodies, which did not act as strongly as they had with other coronavirus variants."
Whether or not the mink mutation affects vaccine development remains to be seen, but it's already affected daily life in Denmark. As NPR reports, over a quarter of a million Danish citizens were put on COVID lockdown when the mutation was discovered in mink. Read on for more on animals that can contract COVID, and for an update on how different areas of the U.S. are responding to COVID, check out These States Are Starting to Lock Down Again.
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Lions and tigers
Surprisingly, the very first case of an animal testing positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. was in a New York City. A total of five tigers and three lions at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for coronavirus in April after exhibiting symptoms.
This represented "the first time, to our knowledge, that a [wild] animal has gotten sick from COVID-19 from a person," said Paul Calle, chief veterinarian for the Bronx Zoo, according to National Geographic. He added that the infection was likely spread by an asymptomatic zookeeper. And for more on how the virus spreads, check out The CDC Now Says COVID Spreads These 5 Ways.
Dogs and cats
Household pets like dogs and cats have been shown to contract coronavirus from their human families. But thankfully, according to the CDC, there have been no known cases of them spreading the disease back to us.
And, because dogs are man's best friend, some are being trained to sniff out coronavirus as a form of rapid testing. These canine teams are already being used in the Helsinki airport in Finland, where, The New York Times reports, they scan sweat samples from travelers upon arrival. "The dogs can detect a coronavirus-infected patient in 10 seconds, and the entire process takes a minute to complete, researchers say. If the dog signals a positive result, the passenger is directed to the airport's health center for a free virus test," The Times explains. And for more on another group of pandemic-fighting pups, Meet the Six Dogs Being Trained to Sniff Out Coronavirus.
Fifteen years ago, scientists discovered that Syrian hamsters could easily be infected with the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Now, it's become apparent that they can also contract COVID-19. In one Hong Kong-based study, eight hamsters were infected with COVID and displayed many of the same symptoms we've come to recognize in humans, like lethargy and trouble breathing. Because of these similarities, they may be helpful in the early stages of vetting potential treatments. And for more updates on the pandemic, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Ferrets have long been used for studying colds, the flu, and other respiratory diseases because they tend to contract those illnesses through the nose, just as humans do. As The New York Times reports, a medical research team at Columbia University has developed a nasal spray that can block the virus in the nose and lungs of ferrets, preventing them from contracting coronavirus. In an early study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, researchers treated some ferrets with the nasal spray and others with a placebo, then placed them in cages with other ferrets that were infected with COVID-19. After 24 hours, none of the spray-treated ferrets contracted the coronavirus, while all of those given a placebo tested positive. And for the one animal you should worry about—COVID side—check out The Deadliest Animal to Humans in the World Will Shock You.