Genomic analysis reveals many animal species may be vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection
August 21 , 2020
by Lisa Howard,  

 at risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection," said Harris Lewin, lead author for the study and a distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis. "We hope it inspires practices that protect both animal and human health during the pandemic."

Domestic animals such as cats, cattle and sheep were found to have a medium risk, and dogs, horses and pigs were found to have low risk for ACE2 binding. How this relates to infection and disease risk needs to be determined by future studies, but for those species that have known infectivity data, the correlation is high.

In documented cases of SARS-COV-2 infection in mink, cats, dogs, hamsters, lions and tigers, the virus may be using ACE2 receptors or they may use receptors other than ACE2 to gain access to host cells. Lower propensity for binding could translate to lower propensity for infection, or lower ability for the infection to spread in an animal or between animals once established.

Because of the potential for animals to contract the novel coronavirus from humans, and vice versa, institutions including the National Zoo and the San Diego Zoo, which both contributed genomic material to the study, have strengthened programs to protect both animals and humans.

"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, senior research scientist at Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation and former conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Center for Species Survival and Center for Conservation Genomics. "This new information allows us to focus our efforts and plan accordingly to keep animals and humans safe."

The authors urge caution against overinterpreting the predicted animal risks based on the computational results, noting the actual risks can only be confirmed with additional experimental data. The list of  can be found here.

Research has shown that the immediate ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in a species of bat. Bats were found to be at very low risk of contracting the novel coronavirus via their ACE2 receptor, which is consistent with actual experimental data.

Whether bats directly transmitted the novel coronavirus directly to humans, or whether it went through an intermediate host, is not yet known, but the study supports the idea that one or more intermediate hosts was involved. The data allow researchers to zero in on which  might have served as an intermediate host in the wild, assisting efforts to control a future outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infection in human and animal populations.

Endangered species predicted to be at risk

Several critically endangered primate species, such as the Western lowland gorilla, Sumatran orangutan and Northern white-cheeked gibbon, are predicted to be at very high risk of infection by SARS-CoV-2 via their ACE2 receptor.

Other animals flagged as high risk include marine mammals such as gray whales and bottlenose dolphins, as well as Chinese hamsters.

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