410 species at risk of COVID-19

Humans aren’t the only species facing the threat of COVID-19, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis.

Around 410 animal species could be vulnerable to the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19, says an international team of scientists.

Using genomic analysis to compare the main cellular receptor for the virus in humans, they found that more than 400 species of vertebrates, including birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, could carry the virus.

The cellular receptor in question is called angiotensin converting enzyme-2, or ACE2, and it’s found on many different types of cells and tissues, including the epithelial cells in the nose, mouth and lungs.

In humans, 25 amino acids of the ACE2 protein are needed for the virus to take hold.

With this knowledge, researchers were able to evaluate how COVID-19 would affect different species.

“Animals with all 25 amino acid residues matching the human protein are predicted to be at the highest risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2 via ACE2,” said study first author Joana Damas.

“The risk is predicted to decrease the more the species’ ACE2 binding residues differ from humans.”

Around  40 per cent of the susceptible species are already classified as ‘threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and may be especially vulnerable to human-to-animal transmission.

“The data provide an important starting point for identifying vulnerable and threatened animal populations at risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said study lead author Harris Lewin.

“We hope it inspires practices that protect both animal and human health during the pandemic.”

Several critically endangered primate species, such as the western lowland gorilla, Sumatran orangutan and northern white-cheeked gibbon, could be most at risk.

Other animals such as grey whales and bottlenose dolphins, and Chinese hamsters have been flagged as high risk.

Domestic animals such as cats, cattle and sheep are at a medium risk.

Dogs, horses and pigs were found to have low risk for ACE2 binding. A full list of affected species can be found here.

How this relates to infection and disease risk is yet to be determined, but for those species that have known infectivity data, the correlation is high.

Infection in mink, cats, dogs, hamsters, lions and tigers have already proven effective in crossing species.

“Zoonotic diseases and how to prevent human-to-animal transmission is not a new challenge to zoos and animal-care professionals,” said co-author Klaus-Peter Koepfli.

“This new information allows us to focus our efforts and plan accordingly to keep animals and humans safe.”

Research has shown that the virus most likely originated in a species of bat.

Exactly how bats transmitted the novel coronavirus to humans is not yet known, but the study supports the idea that one or more intermediate hosts could have been involved.

It is hoped this research will help researchers to zero in on which species might have served as an intermediate host.

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