Can animals spread COVID-19 to humans? There’s little evidence for that

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There's not much evidence for animal-to-human transmission of COVID-19, and in fact, animals could help with the development of coronavirus treatments. That’s according to Dr. Michael Wilkes of UC Davis. Photo by Brian Hardzinski.

Animals are the latest to fall prey to COVID-19. New reports from the Bronx Zoo show that a handful of tigers and three lions are now recovering after testing positive for the virus. The zoo’s chief veterinarian suspects a zookeeper might have transmitted the virus.  

What do these cases mean for the safety of other animals worldwide and domestic pets? Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, says these cases are not isolated, but the news shouldn’t cause extreme concern.

“There's very little evidence that animals play any role in spreading COVID-19 amongst humans right now,” Wilkes says.  

He explains that snakes, pigs, chicken and cattle can be infected by different strains of coronaviruses, including COVID-19, but those infections are considered “much less serious.”

As for pets at home? To date, a handful of dogs and cats in Hong Kong have been infected. He advises anyone who is sick to stay away from their pets.

Veterinarians say if pets come in contact with other animals or humans, owners should give them dry baths, Wilkes adds.

To prevent potential human to animal transmission, some governments are taking action. Wilkes gives an example from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, UC Davis runs a large park, where staff members care for mountain gorillas. However, the country’s government has ordered UC Davis to stop all human exposure to mountain gorillas, for fear that the animals would get sick and potentially die. In recent years, the site has been popular with tourists. 

Did COVID-19 originate from animals?

Wilkes emphasizes that there is no definitive answer for the origin of COVID-19. But he says some 75% of new infections come from animals. 

He notes that bats are one highly probable source of COVID-19 because of the number of coronaviruses found in the species.

“The more humans take away animals’ land and chop down their nesting spots — and in the case of bats, raise them for their feces to use as fertilizer and in many places eat them for food — the greater the chance that their diseases are going to spread to us.” 

He says wet markets (stalls where live fish, birds, and other animals are sold) are often cited as ground zero for COVID-19, and potentially where animals can pass the virus to humans. 

“You've got these animals that normally don't come in close proximity to each other, that are sitting in cages right on top of or next to each other, and you've got a recipe for lots of disease transmission.”

But he reiterates that the origins of the virus are still under investigation.

Can you get the virus from eating meat?

Wilkes assures that so far, there is no evidence for contracting the virus through food.

“Scientists think that if the virus was present in something that we eat, it would be ingested and would be destroyed in the acidic environment in our stomachs,” he says.

Animals might help develop a vaccine 

As the pandemic continues, animals can help identify side effects and the safety of new COVID-19 treatments, Wilkes says.  

“Small monkeys are playing a large role here. I know that my friends at PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] might be upset, but these are life-saving interventions.”

He says without animals, scientists would be forced to give untested treatments to humans.




Chery Glaser