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Amanda Goldberg attempted to swab a mouse for COVID this past spring while hunched over in a forest in southwest Virginia’s lush underbrush. Unfortunately, her instruments wouldn’t fit in its little nose. Goldberg, a conservation biologist at Virginia Tech University, told me, “You never think about nostrils until you have to swab an animal. Raccoons and foxes, which she and her colleagues had successfully trapped, had no problem with nose swabs; however, mice required throat samples. She claimed that despite some chewing, the swabs fit into their mouths fairly nicely.
The purpose of Goldberg’s throat-swabbing efforts was to participate in a study that she and her colleagues designed to address the topic of how widespread COVID is in wildlife. One opossum, out of the 333 woodland animals her team swabbed in Blacksburg, Virginia, representing 18 different species, tested positive for the virus. This was to be expected, according to Goldberg; it was similar to finding Waldo to catch a wild animal that just so happened to have an active infection when it was swabbed. Blood samples, however, were also taken by the researchers, and these provided more information regarding the animals’ COVID history. Researchers at Virginia Tech conducted an analysis that identified antibodies in 24 animals from six different species, including the opossum, the Eastern grey squirrel, and two varieties of mice. We were completely floored, said Goldberg. In essence, every creature we sent to the lab was involved.
One of the first things we discovered about COVID was that animals may contract the virus. Despite the never-ending controversy about its origins, SARS-CoV-2 most likely spread from an animal to humans in Wuhan by way of an intermediary host. Since then, a variety of animals have been affected by the spread. People have transmitted it to domestic pets like dogs and cats as well as the kinds of animals you’d find in a Disney film, such lions, hippos, hyenas, tigers, mink, and hamsters. Animals are still contracting COVID three years after the pandemic began, just as humans are. Edward Holmes, a biologist at the University of Sydney, informed me that COVID is probably present in animals at higher concentrations than we are aware of. “I have worked on this subject for more than 30 years, and I have never encountered a virus that can infect so many animal species,” he claimed. It is anticipated that more than 500 additional animal species would be extremely vulnerable to infection.
It makes reasonable that animal-to-human spread has mostly been forgotten given that the majority of people nowadays aren’t worried about human-to-human spread all that much. Animal COVID, however, cannot be disregarded despite the fact that there are so many other pandemic issues. Continual animal transmission has the exact same effects on animals as it does on humans: The more COVID spreads, the more opportunity it has to evolve into new varieties. The likelihood that one of those mutations could leak back into humans is what’s most concerning. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that may infect a variety of animals, including people, as we have known since the pandemic began. We’re also not out of the woods as long as animals continue to contract COVID.
Apart from the fact that animals are not people, one possible explanation for why COVID in animals has gone unnoticed is because most species don’t appear to become sick all that badly. Infected animals normally show only minor signs, such as coughing and sluggishness, as seen in pumas and lions. But the depth of our research has been limited. According to Goldberg, who is concerned about long-lasting or undetectable illnesses getting untreated in species, “We certainly can’t ask them, “Are you feeling headaches, or sluggish?” Animal COVID has persisted uncontrolled as a result, raising the possibility that it could have negative implications for mankind.
The good news is that the CDC rates the risk of contracting COVID from animals as being generally low. This is partially explained by evolutionary theory, which states that most variants that arise in an animal population will have evolved to improve their ability to infect the host species—not us—rather than other animals. However, purely by coincidence, some of them “may be very transmissible or pathogenic in humans,” according to Holmes. It’s a procedure that is unpredictable. His main worry is not that animals would start infecting humans in large numbers—neighbors are far more likely to do that than raccoons—but rather that SARS-CoV-2 could evolve into new variations in animals and then spread to humans. Though there is still little evidence, some scientists think that Omicron developed in mice in this manner.
The fact that there is already some proof that COVID has spread from humans to animals, where it mutated, and then returned to humans is alarming. Take the white-tailed deer, a well-known COVID host by this point. When hunters go out to kill deer in the southwest Ontario woodlands and golden meadows each fall, it gives scientists a chance to test some of the taken prey for COVID. The fact that the species has been infected with variations that are often found in humans—a few Staten Island deer contracted Omicron last winter, for instance—indicates that people are contaminating them. It’s yet unclear how the deer contract the disease: Possibilities include spending more time with people, rummaging through rubbish, or gulping down our wastewater.
Brad Pickering, a research scientist for the Canadian government who studied the deer, told me that the researchers in Canada discovered not only that some of the animals tested positive but also that the variant they carried had never before been seen in humans, indicating that the virus had been spreading and mutating within the population for a long time. The new variety is really one of the most evolutionary divergent ones discovered to yet. But despite these variations, at least one individual who later became ill had contact with deer the week before. Pickering admitted that there is no direct connection between the two, but the discovery of a significantly divergent deer variation in a human is quite suggestive of how that individual became ill.
The evidence that the COVID we spread to animals may bite us back is still sparse, but it is growing. The good news is that this particular spillback does not seem to have had negative effects on humans; renegade deer variations do not seem to be common in southern Canada. However, this is not the first incidence of animal-to-human transmission that has been proven. Infections have also been linked to cats in Thailand, hamsters in Hong Kong, and mink in the Netherlands. There have undoubtedly been further spillbacks that went undiscovered. There is now no evidence that the animal varieties that have reached humans are more harmful to us. Even if a prospective animal variation isn’t the next Omicron, Pickering suggested that it might be more adept at avoiding our current medications and vaccinations.
However, there is also a serious data shortage. There are ongoing local animal surveillance programmes run by scientists like Goldberg and Pickering, but Holmes said they are uncommon worldwide. The Complexity Science Hub Vienna’s global database of recognised animal diseases is an excellent place to start. The locations of previously afflicted animals are displayed on an interactive map, including enormous hairy armadillos (Argentina), manatees (Brazil), and cats (everywhere). Animal COVID requires, at the very least, that “we know what species it’s in, in what abundance, and genetically, what those variants look like,” according to Holmes. Knowing where [the virus] is travelling is really essential. Without it, it is impossible to determine how frequently spillback happens and whether it endangers people. A disastrous Omicron-like variant may also appear in their populations, Goldberg added, so it’s impossible to say whether new COVID mutations are endangering animals as well.
Even if they don’t appear to be happening, the steps we need to take to address the animal-COVID problem and stop the spread of other zoonotic illnesses to people are obvious. Eliminating wet markets where wild animals are traded is an obvious preventive approach, but it has been challenging to put into practice because many people rely on them for their livelihoods and meals, particularly in the global South. Wildlife will be driven into ever-closer quarters with people as climate change and land development devastate more ecosystems, promoting an even more effective flow of viruses across species. Contrary to mask use and other simple methods for reducing COVID transmission among humans, preventing its transfer to, from, and among animals will involve significant changes to the way our societies operate, probably more than we are prepared to do.
Humans frequently behave as though COVID eventually affects humans after passing via a lengthy chain of organisms. However, Holmes said that to believe this would be likened to living in the Middle Ages, when the Earth was thought to be the centre of the cosmos. We discovered back then that we don’t really matter: Humans are merely a node in a vast network of organisms through which viruses spread in numerous directions. Human viruses can spread to animals in the same way as animal viruses infect humans (measles, for example, kills a variety of great apes). There are undoubtedly more serious issues than animal COVID—nobody needs to hide out for fear of a sneezing deer—but we cannot ignore the implications for humans as long as animals continue to have the disease. Examining animal COVID frequently begins with a single swab—and a snout to insert it in.
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