Lions And Tigers And…Deer? Oh My!
First it was bats and humans, then domestic cats and dogs, farmed mink, and big zoo cats; now gorillas, hippos, and wild deer that have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 (CoV-2 for short) virus. Many of these animals have become ill and several have died of COVID-19, most recently three snow leopards in South Dakota and Nebraska zoos. This is quite a wanton virus.
Of course, before CoV-2 and COVID-19 were known to the world, we knew that bats, humans and a few other animals, notably civets and even camels, were ready hosts of several different strains of “‘rona” viruses. We also knew that domesticated animals are also susceptible to their own coronavirus diseases—in fact veterinary coronavirus vaccines have been in use for years. Humans are known hosts for several coronaviruses, including those that cause the common cold, as well as the viruses that cause SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19. And we know that humans often catch these germs from bats and other intermediate hosts as diverse as civets and camels. After we genetically identified CoV-2 and were able to follow its spread, we quickly noticed that domestic pets also could be infected. This was closely followed with news that seven big cats at the Bronx zoo had become infected, and that mink farms across Europe were hotbeds for CoV-2 spread between humans and the animals and back. In fact, mink farms became such a hotbed of CoV-2 zoonotic spread that a couple of European countries completely shut down mink farming and culled all their animals. Several US states have also sharply curtailed mink farming. PETA probably applauds.
More recently two snow leopards at the Lincoln, NE children’s zoo and one in a zoo in South Dakota died from COVID. The Lincoln zoo also had two infected Sumatran tigers who recovered after being treated with steroids and antibiotics to prevent secondary infections and pneumonia. How the animals were infected is uncertain, but the most likely scenario is that they caught the virus from a caretaker. The problem is, none of the caretakers tested positive for the virus. Bats? Something else?
Since April 2020, when a tiger tested positive at the Bronx Zoo, dozens of other animals in zoos around the world have caught COVID. This month, the Denver Zoo reported the first coronavirus cases in hyenas, and the St. Louis Zoo found eight positive cases among its big cats, including two snow leopards. Abroad, the virus has killed a lion in India and two tiger cubs in Pakistan. Big cats seem especially susceptible since three other snow leopards at the Louisville Zoo were infected last December, and another snow leopard tested positive at the San Diego Zoo in July. The virus doesn’t just infect our fuzzy friends either; two hippos, named Imani and Hermien, at a zoo in Antwerp recently tested positive for COVID-19. Zoo keepers were first alerted to a potential problem when they noticed that the colossi had “runny noses.” One reckons that a runny nose for a hippo is a big deal. One also wonders who gets to dab that nasal maw in order to test for the virus.
In fact, zoo and domestic animal infections have become so prevalent that an animal COVID vaccine developed by Zoetis, a NJ-based veterinary pharma company and former Pfizer subsidiary, has been authorized by the USDA for experimental use. The Cincinnati Zoo, for one, has vaccinated 80 animals, from giraffes to apes, against COVID.
Deer too. Oh my! It is one thing for zoo animals to acquire COVID—their captivity makes it easy to limit their interaction with other animals and humans to prevent spread of contagions, and they seldom complain that their rights are being infringed when they are quarantined. However, COVID in wild animals is a different story, as we have seen with bats and how easily they transmit the virus to humans. Scientists now have evidence that CoV-2 also readily propagates in white-tailed deer. In fact, the virus is already widespread in cervids across the US, which likely has significant implications for the long-term course of this pandemic.
In September of last year, genetic analysis of the gene that encodes the ACE2 protein (i.e., the viral receptors expressed on many cells in the body) in many different animal species suggested that CoV-2 could easily infect deer (and several other animals too). A survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40% had antibodies against the CoV-2 virus, indicating prior exposure. Between April and December 2020, veterinarians at Penn State found active CoV-2 infections in ~30% of deer tested across Iowa. Then during the winter COVID surge in humans from Nov. 23, 2020, to Jan. 10 of this year, ~80% of the tested deer were infected. The prevalence of the virus in deer was 50 to 100 times greater than in Iowa residents at the time (and the deer reportedly did not wear face masks). The study, published about two months ago, indicates that white-tailed deer have become a permanent reservoir for CoV-2. While it is not fully understood how the virus entered the deer population, genetic sequence analysis of nearly 100 viral samples found that the variants circulating in deer matched the variants circulating in people. This suggests that deer caught the virus from people multiple times in Iowa alone. How that happens is not known since people usually do not have close contact with live deer. More concerning is whether viral variants arising in deer readily pass back to people.
Bottom line. Clearly, a lot of different animal species can catch Cov-2 and spread it. It is clear that people can spread coronaviruses to pets and other animals, but the FDA says that the reverse, animal-to-human virus transmission, is not common. But, it clearly happens as we have seen with this pandemic, and with many other viruses that cause SARS, MERS, AIDS, Ebola, flu, etc., that spread from animals to humans. The prevalence of CoV-2 infection in so many species of mammals, especially in animals that have close contact with humans, suggests that several animal species, not just bats, can serve as permanent reservoirs for the virus and the jump to humans is something that can happen over and over. This is not unprecedented. It is what we see with influenza, which is carried back and forth between the Northern and Southern hemispheres with migratory birds, in which different flu viruses shuffle their genomes to create the new strains of flu for which we have to vaccinate against each year. This animal reservoir for flu makes it next to impossible to eliminate influenza, and similar animal hosts for CoV-2 likely would make it nigh impossible to eliminate COVID too. I raised this specter some months ago in these pages when reporting that pet dogs and cats can carry the virus. Our furry friends represent a viral reservoir that is in even closer contact with people than bats, deer, and fortunately, hippos and leopards.
We also have to be worried about the CoV-2 virus mutating in the different animal species that harbor and spread it. We know that happens in bats, which makes it almost certain that new strains of the virus will arise in deer and dogs too. We have already seen this on mink farms in the Netherlands and Poland. Farmworkers passed the virus to captive animals where it spread, mutated, and then spilled back into humans. In fact, zoonotic transmission from animals to humans probably happens thousands of times a year. Researchers from the EcoHealth Alliance and from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, estimate that each year many people are newly infected with SARS-related coronaviruses. Many may get sick, but there are many reasons why most of these infections never grow into noticeable outbreaks (for example see my earlier blog post about unusual respiratory infection clusters in China and Los Angeles just before COVID). The researchers also created a detailed map of Asian habitats of 23 bat species known to harbor SARS-related coronaviruses then overlaid it with data on where humans live to create a map of potential infection hot spots. They found that close to 500 million people live in areas where bat-to-human transfer is likely, and this risk is highest in southern China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Other surveys done before COVID-19 showed that many people in Southeast Asia harbor antibodies against other SARS-related coronaviruses. Blending these data with data on how often people encounter bats and how long antibodies remain in the blood, the researchers calculated that ~400,000 undetected human infections with these viruses occur each year across the region.
That is just for bat-to-human transfer in Southern Asia. It now looks like we will have to also concern ourselves with zoonotic coronavirus transfer from Buddy and Bambi too.
For this reason, researchers are working to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine that will be effective against most viral strains and variants. I will write about this soon. Stay tuned.
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