We know that humans are not the only species that can contract the coronavirus. But you may be surprised to learn that animal cruelty could result in dozens of animal species contracting the infection, and - in a karmic twist of fate - re-infecting the humans responsible for their exploitation.
According to new research, animals that are more susceptible to infection with the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 include farmed mink and ferrets, captive lions and tigers, and incarcerated macaques. That spells bad news for mink and ferret farmers, lion and tiger zookeepers, circus ringmasters, and canned hunters, as well as syndicates involved in the illegal wildlife trafficking of macaques.
Practices and professions that result in cruelty towards animals could have deadly consequences down the line as the numbers of infected people fall and restrictions on movement ease. Already, mink living in close quarters on Dutch farms have passed the infection between them, and the virus could be spreading undetected on other mink farms across Europe, North America, and Asia.
It’s believed weasels, badgers, martens, and wolverines – all of whom are severely abused at the hands of humans - could also become hosts to the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, there is currently just not enough data available to confirm this and scientists are calling for an extensive sampling of wildlife to improve their understandings of the risks.
According to scientists at University College London (UCL), mammals - including great apes - are at the highest risk of contracting the disease, spreading the disease, and becoming “reservoirs for the virus.” Simply put, re-introducing it to the human population in the future.
In general, primates - from chimpanzees through to gorillas – are highly susceptible to human respiratory pathogens and thus, COVID-19 could be fatal to our closest cousins. That’s because humans and primates have highly similar ACE2 genes and receptors, making it easier for the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen to find its binding match on our cells. The symptoms of COVID-19 are also likely to be the same in humans and in primates (dry cough and fever).
“Farming and trafficking of wildlife puts humankind at massive risk of future virus outbreaks that, unfortunately, are becoming more common already,” said David Barritt of Network for Animals (NFA).
“Bringing together species that do not naturally meet exposes humans to pathogens of zoonotic origins, which constitute 70% of emerging diseases.”
Great apes - who share between 97% and 99% of their DNA with humans - are already facing numerous threats aside from habitat loss, such as poaching, bushmeat trade, and other infectious diseases such as Ebola. COVID-19 adds yet another potential threat to great ape populations around the globe, all of which are categorized either as endangered or critically endangered, including bonobos, eastern and western gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees. The best way to reduce the risk is to reduce contact between great apes and people.
So far, there have been no positive tests of COVID-19 in wild great apes – but experts agree that should the virus spread to this species, the results will be catastrophic and end up being passed back and forth between great apes and people.
“We know that the coronavirus originally came from an animal and now research is finding that it can spread from people to animals. If there ever was a time for humankind to re-evaluate our relationship with animals, it’s now. The more we engage in cruel practices towards animals, the more we are putting ourselves at the mercy of viruses to which we have no natural immunity,” concluded Barritt.