Although it may seem like panic, the suggestion that British ministers might have to consider culling or vaccination animals in order to prevent coronavirus picking up another deadly mutation and jumping back at humans may sound alarming. However, this is just one part of a long debate between scientists.
As early as April 2020, evidence that cats may have been infected by SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID) emerged from Wuhan, China. In the same month, evidence showed that the cats could transmit the disease to other cats if they are exposed to certain conditions. Infections have been confirmed in mink from Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as in large cats at zoos, dogs, ferrets, and other animals. Keep in mind that SARS-CoV-2 was likely transmitted by bats, and other wildlife species may also be infected.
SARS-CoV-2 infection can lead to actual disease in some species. This could cause veterinary, welfare, or conservation problems. To control a pandemic in humans, it is more difficult to prevent or treat the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to companion animals who spend a lot time with people. If transmission is easy between cats and humans, then it might be necessary to take preventative measures, such as vaccinating or quarantining cats.
Although there is evidence of transmission between cats and humans, very little evidence exists for cats transmitting to humans. There is not much evidence of transmission between cats in normal circumstances (i.e., not in a laboratory). There is no reason to believe that cats with infections are a problem at the moment. Your family and friends are more likely to contract COVID from you than your cats. However, you can take the same hygiene precautions that you do for other diseases such as toxoplasmosis from cats to minimize the risk.
Our pet dogs and cats are not at risk of major disease. There are no specific methods that can be used to control them, such as quarantine or culling. There is concern for the possibility of new variants emerging in the long-term. These variants may be easier to transmit (like the alpha variant), or more likely to infect people who have been vaccinated (like those infected with the beta variant). Variants can cause more severe diseases, but they could also cause milder symptoms and be more similar to the common cold or flu.
People, not pets, are more likely to contract COVID. (Image credit: Shutterstock)
Because the virus adapts to our efforts to control it, it is almost certain that there will be more variants. Because the U.K. is conducting the largest surveillance program in history, these new variants are quickly being identified in people. SARS-CoV-2 could spread to other species if it becomes a problem.
Even though it is rare, the U.K. government should consider future scenarios. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) recently reported on the long-term evolution SARS-CoV-2. Surveillance to detect any new variants in animals and people is the best way to reduce the risk. If your pet develops respiratory symptoms, don't be surprised to see your veterinarian and to give a sample. You may also be asked to do the same if you are asked.
Mass vaccination of pets is not possible
It is much less likely that pets will be vaccinated. Although vaccines for COVID have been developed for dogs and cats, there are still some issues in proving their effectiveness.
Only late-stage human trials were conducted to approve vaccines for use in humans. This involved large numbers of people being vaccinated, and then followed up to determine if they were immune. To show any difference in effectiveness between the COVID vaccine and the control vaccine, sufficient people had to be infected. Similar trials will not be possible in cats and dogs if infection rates are low or unknown. Smaller trials also don't provide enough evidence.
Although it is possible to use the same vaccines for cats and dogs as humans, there are risks. Exposing vaccinated persons to new infections could be used as a way to select for vaccine variants that can escape the immune reaction. The same vaccine design may be used in dogs and cats. This could allow for vaccine escape variants in these species that can then be transferred back to vaccinated humans. This is especially true if vaccines aren't as effective in humans or given to only a few cats and dogs.
It is unlikely that pets will be euthanized as a precaution (or "culling" of wildlife or livestock). Imagine a situation where a potentially deadly, potentially fatal variant spreads from a cat's owner to the family. In order to stop the spread of the disease in humans, it would be ideal for the infection to be contained in an appropriate facility. To reduce the risk to humans and other cats, the source cat and any immediate contacts should be killed.
If the variant is already widely known, large-scale cat euthanasia would not be a good idea. It is not worth worrying about large-scale euthanasia for our pets if there is no surveillance for SARS-2 in animals and people.
Government agencies such as UK Research and Innovation are funding surveillance programs for pets and wildlife. This debate and these programs will help to avoid over-reactions from inept people in the future.
This article was republished by The Conversation under Creative Commons. You can read the original article.
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