Studies suggest expanding precautions against spread of COVID-19 between humans and animals

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A combination of studies are suggesting expanding precautions against the spread of COVID-19 and they're not so much about masks and social distancing, but instead, our relationship to animals.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers have been working to understand how the virus may have jumped from animals such as bats to humans and what other animals could potentially be carriers. Several months ago, a team at San Francisco's Gladstone Institutes helped analyze the genetics of more than 400 animals. They zeroed in on a specific cell receptor that the COVID-19 virus latches on to when it invades the body, called ACE-2.

"And then we generated a score that basically reflected the similarity of their DNA sequence for ACE-2 to human Ace-2," explains Gladstone genomics researcher Kathleen Keough.

Keough says some of the results were what you might expect. primates like certain gorillas and chimpanzees were in the very high risk category, similar to humans. One popular pet, cats, ranked in the medium risk category, while dogs ranked lower.

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But, what to do with this kind of data?

"It is in our best interest to identify animal reservoirs, because the longer the virus circulates, the more animal species get infected, we risk developing alternate animal reservoirs," said Arinjay Banerjee, Ph.D., of McMaster University in Canada.

Banerjee and his colleagues have compiled data from various sources, including the genome study, and used it to create a kind of bio-defense plan to monitor animals

"And we built this framework, recommending a surveillance protocol. Because it's impossible to survey every animal species," explains Banerjee.

Their formula not only takes into account the animal's ACE-2 risk, but also their potential contact with humans.

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Among the ideas:

Testing certain zoo animals and their handlers in environments like the San Diego Zoo, where several Gorillas have been diagnosed with the virus. Monitoring agricultural workers and certain animals on farms where populations such as Minks have already been heavily infected. Introducing strict hygiene protocols for transporting animals, and possibly asking veterinarians to routinely monitor cats under their care.

Since humans are now the most high-profile spreaders, Banerjee says the prospect of the virus being passed back and forth with animals could create new dangers.

"And the fallback is this virus could jump back into humans, and it could have adapted in this animal, and may become a variant that may escape vaccine mediated immunity," Banerjee believes.

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Whatever precautions eventually go into place, Gladstones' Kathleen Keough says it's important to understand that the risk will always be a natural part of the human animal relationship.

"So I think that's really it, I think we have a greater understanding of it, but we're still in the same world, this has been happening as long as humans have been around," she says.

For more information on the Gladstone / UC Davis study and the McMaster paper, go here.

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