Can COVID-19 infect animals?

Researchers have come up with a novel way for analyzing whether or not the SARS-CoV-2 can infect certain animals, providing a powerful weapon in the war against the virus.

The COVID-19 disease, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has taken the world by storm in 2020. Tens of millions have been infected, with a death toll of over 1.5 million. There is a widespread belief in the scientific community that SARS-CoV-2 has originated from bats and was later transmitted to humans. It is therefore clear that the virus can infect at least some species of animals other than human beings. But which animals can it infect, and at what efficiency?

The question of animal infection is critical in the fight to stop the spread of the virus. If household pets, for example, can be infected and later infect human beings, then it is vital that we place pets in quarantine as well. It is just as important for us to know if certain wildlife can provide host for the virus, since in that case the virus can seek refuge in some wild animals, and possibly even mutate in them in a way that makes it more harmful to humans.

Researchers from King Abdulaziz University, in collaboration with other universities around the world, have recently come up with a novel way for analyzing what species of animals are most likely to be susceptible to the virus. The authors, Vladimir N. Uversky, Elrashdy M. Redwan and their collaborators, focused on the structure of the ACE2 protein, to which the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses as a way to bind itself to the cell and infiltrate it.

The researchers analyzed the structure of the ACE2 protein in several animal species, including chimpanzee, rhesus monkey, cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, mice, chicken and others. They compared the ACE2 protein in those animals with the same protein in human beings. They further postulated that when a similarity occurs between the two in certain parts of the protein, the animal carrying that protein becomes susceptible to infection by the virus.

Schematic representation of the various ways of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from humans to animals and back. Source

Their results hinted that the ACE2 proteins in chicken and fish are remarkably close in their structure to those in humans. These results may explain why frozen chicken wings have recently tested positive for COVID-19, even if it seems that they were not infectious by themselves. Moreover, the team reports that the structure of the ACE2 protein is least similar to that found in mice. This observation is remarkable in its accuracy, as previous research shows that SARS-CoV-2 is barely capable of binding to mice cells.

While more research needs to be conducted to confirm this analysis method, the current research provides support to the idea that the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to infect animals can be determined by the structure of the ACE2 proteins in different species. This novel method, therefore, could provide us with a powerful weapon in the war against the virus – and help us win it eventually.

Original content by Nawartna

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