How many animals have had COVID-19? New tracker offers some clues




Since the start of the pandemic, there have been several reports of coronavirus infections among cats, dogs and other animals. But until now, there was limited data on how widespread COVID-19 is in the animal kingdom.



A new global database may help provide some clues.



So far, there have been 704 confirmed cases in animals, in 27 different species from 39 countries, according to the first dashboard of its kind from a team of Austrian researchers who worked with the Wildlife Conservation society that compiles the tally of COVID cases among animals.


Among the 582 outbreaks tracked in the animal world, the disease fatality rate so far has been close to 3%, with most symptoms among animals presenting as respiratory, gastrointestinal or behavioral issues, according to the data.



While the researchers say it is impossible to know the true impact of the coronavirus in the wild, the documented cases included in the dashboard were largely confirmed with laboratory PCR tests and provide a strong foundation to build on.



“The dashboard intends to support public education about the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission between humans and animals and raise public awareness about possible wildlife conservation issues posed by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic,” said Amélie Desvars-Larrive, professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and leader of the research team, in a study accompanying the initial data dump.


Scientists believe it is critical to know which animals are getting infected and what is happening to them because it could help track virus mutations and cases of animal-to-human transmission, which are still considered rare.


There have been 187 documented cases in mink, followed by 177 in cats and 160 in dogs. Cases in white-tailed deer, hamsters, tigers, lions and beavers are further down the list. The dashboard also includes information on which virus variants infected each animal.



In most cases, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that pets are getting infected “after close contact with people with COVID-19.” One study found that the main reason owners infect pets and not the other way around is because cats and dogs generally have lower viral loads than humans and only shed the virus for a short time.



“Pets infected with this virus may or may not get sick,” the CDC says. “Of the pets that have gotten sick, most only had mild illness and fully recovered. Serious illness in pets is extremely rare.”



But in the early months of the pandemic, there were reports of outbreaks in which animals were believed to have infected humans, leading to government officials culling millions of mink in Denmark and hamsters in Hong Kong.



Researchers in Thailand also said they documented the first confirmed case of a pet cat infecting a veterinarian with the coronavirus in June, according to a report in Nature.



“We’ve known this was a possibility for two years,” Angela Bosco-Lauth, an infectious-disease researcher at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who was not involved in the study, told the journal.


Many scientists believe the coronavirus originally jumped from bats to humans, either directly or through another animal.



In July, two new studies provided more evidence that the coronavirus pandemic originated in a Wuhan, China, market where live animals were sold — further bolstering the theory that the virus emerged in the wild rather than escaping from a Chinese lab.



The research, published online by the journal Science, shows that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was likely the early epicenter of the scourge that has now killed nearly 6.4 million people around the world, according to the Associated Press. Scientists conclude that the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, likely spilled from animals into people two separate times.



“All this evidence tells us the same thing: It points right to this particular market in the middle of Wuhan,” said Kristian Andersen a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research and co-author of one of the studies. “I was quite convinced of the lab leak myself until we dove into this very carefully and looked at it much closer.”



Aidin Vaziri (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.