The type and frequency of animals coming down with COVID is trying to tell us something about the future of the pandemic. Scientists are on the case

"Tiger at US zoo tests positive for coronavirus, becoming first animal to get COVID-19," proclaimed an April 2020 headline.
Hardly.
The story referred to 4-year-old Malayan tiger Nadia, who contracted COVID along with six other tigers at the Bronx Zoo early in the pandemic - likely after being cared for by a pre-symptomatic zoo worker.
It was the first in a steady stream of stories about animals contracting COVID like most of us. Among the menagerie of animals that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
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Pets such as cats, dogs, ferrets and hamsters.
Zoo animals such as lions, tigers, snow leopards, otters, hyenas, hippos and manatees.
Mink living on farms.
Wildlife including numerous white-tailed and mule deer, a black-tailed marmoset and a giant anteater.
COVID is known to be no exception to the “zoonotic” diseases that animals have transmitted to humans or vice versa. It's thought to have jumped from a bat, pangolin, or raccoon dog to humans, perhaps via an intermediary such as a pet (although a controversial "lab leak" hypothesis hasn't been fully debunked).
Similar to COVID, the 2009 H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic is believed to have been caused by the mixing of North American and European pigs mixing flu strains. Arthropod-derived and mosquito-borne, West Nile virus became established in New York City in 1999 and has since become endemic in the United States. And monkeypox, a smallpox-related virus once endemic to Africa but now sweeping the globe, has been detected in monkeys, although it is thought to have originated in rodents.
Animals most likely started the COVID-19 pandemic, as so many others have - but their role in it hasn't gone away since then. The pathogen is now circulating in both populations, crossing and sloshing back, although such occurrences are relatively rare. And like humans, animals continue to shape the pandemic as new variants and subvariants mutate in hosts with skin, fur, and feathers before attempting to invade the broader population.
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Scientists are watching the animal kingdom for signs of what's coming next.
A host is a host
Scientists have recently started tracking the spread of COVID in animals on publicly available data dashboards. One launched late last month by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Australian researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna has so far documented 704 diagnoses of COVID-19 in animals worldwide in 39 countries and 27 species.
Among the revelations:
In the US, 117 cat and 110 dog infections have been documented.
Mink are among the most commonly identified animals with COVID. In Greece alone, 159 American mink were diagnosed, in addition to almost 150 in Spain and 250 in Lithuania.
Most animals were asymptomatic or had respiratory symptoms. Mink are the most likely to die.
Omicron subvariants are the most commonly identified strains in animals, although cases of Delta have also been documented.
The risk of contracting COVID in animals is low, says Dr. Mary Montgomery, a clinical instructor in the Department of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated facility in Boston.
But it's real. According to a recent study, COVID has spread from animals to humans -- perhaps in multiple patients from multiple animal encounters in late 2019 -- and it can re-enter animals via humans in a process scientists call "zoonotic transmission."
Just as COVID can mutate in humans, it can also mutate in animals. For example, an animal with COVID could produce a new variant or subvariant and transmit it back to humans.
Worst-case scenario, this new variant would be even more transmissible than the currently dominant Omicron subvariant BA.5, and even more immune-avoidable — perhaps even able to trick antiviral drugs like Paxlovid and monoclonal antibody treatments administered in hospitals and outpatient settings.
The most likely culprit in such a scenario may be a bird as it is migratory.
"Birds can migrate and spread new pathogens quickly," says Montgomery. "And there are definitely many cases in the literature of other coronaviruses affecting birds."
Among the researchers monitoring the bird population: Dr. Raj Rajnarayanan, Associate Dean of Research and Associate Professor at the New York Institute of Technology campus in Jonesboro, Ark. He created and maintains a number of COVID-related data dashboards, including one of COVID in animals, populated with data from GISAID, an international research organization that tracks changes in COVID and the flu virus.
While the majority of animal cases identified worldwide have occurred in mink, deer and domestic animals such as cats and dogs, Rajnarayanan recently found that COVID has already spread to the bird population. The first two reported cases were recently identified in swans in China.
Omicron seems more likely to infect chickens and turkeys than the delta variant, he says, adding that eventually bird crossing could have "major implications" such as new mutations, widespread spread of the virus and food supply implications.
"Everyone wants to focus on mammalian species," he says. “Now birds come into the picture. We want to observe that much more closely.”
Rajnarayanan would like the US Department of Agriculture to allow more frequent testing of livestock. He also thinks the agency should provide protective equipment for farmers to reduce the likelihood of farm-to-livestock transmission and vice-versa.
"We're almost in our third year - we don't want to keep this thing going forever," he says.
Medical and veterinary professionals need to work together
As climate change continues, forcing animals and humans into more regular contact, there will inevitably be cross-effects and repercussions — be it COVID, bird flu, or some pathogen still unknown to humans — perhaps the next pandemic.
Montgomery advocates the concept of One Health, which emphasizes that the health of people, animals, plants and their shared environment are inextricably linked.
Before the advent of the automobile, vets and doctors trained together, leading to doctors moving to big cities with hospitals and vets moving to rural areas where they were needed to care for livestock, she says. Harvard used to have a veterinary school alongside the medical school, and students trained together.
Such transdisciplinary collaboration is needed again if we are to finally overcome this pandemic - and prevent the next.
"We need to have the resources to not only think about human health, but also to make sure we're thinking about animal health," she says, adding that people often don't worry about diseases in animals — until they do bypass people.
“Sometimes we don't think about prevention or early mitigation or containment. We only react when something has entered the human population. Awareness is key here.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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