Dozens of animal species worldwide may be susceptible to the coronavirus, research suggests.
The previously unknown infection is thought to have started in bats, before “jumping” into humans, possibly via pangolins.
Concerns were raised early in the outbreak when a dog in Hong Kong tested “weak positive” for the coronavirus, however, experts stressed there was “no evidence pet animals can be a source of infection”.
A tiger in a New York zoo also hit the headlines when it caught the virus, even developing a tell-tale dry cough.
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When it comes to animals catching the coronavirus, experts have previously warned against “mass hysteria”.
Scientists from University College London (UCL) have since reported, however, 26 creatures that are “regularly in contact with people” may be susceptible to the infection.
The coronavirus enters cells when its so-called spike protein interacts with a receptor called ACE2.
Based on existing evidence, the UCL team believe it is unlikely the virus could infect a species without binding to ACE2.
The scientists therefore investigated ACE2 mutations across 215 animals. These mutations mean the receptor differs from the human version, “reducing the stability of the binding complex” between the virus’ spike protein and the host’s receptor.
Results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest that in animals like sheep and great apes – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – the virus’ spike protein and the species’ ACE2 receptor “would be able to bind together just as strongly as they do when the virus infects people”.
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The scientists stressed, however, that for some species this is just a hypothesis. Sheep, for example, have not been studied for infection risk specifically, just spike protein and ACE2 binding.
“We wanted to look beyond just the animals that had been studied experimentally, to see which animals might be at risk of infection, and would warrant further investigation and possible monitoring,” said lead author Professor Christine Orengo.
“The animals we identified may be at risk of outbreaks that could threaten endangered species or harm the livelihoods of farmers.
“The animals might also act as reservoirs of the virus, with the potential to re-infect humans later on, as has been documented on mink farms.”
These minks are thought to have been infected by farm workers. In a few cases, the minks have transmitted the virus to other people, in the first reported cases of animal-to-human transmission.
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When looking at the risk among different types of animals, the scientists predicted most birds, fish and reptiles do not appear capable of catching the coronavirus.
Among mammals, however, most of the species they analysed