A new phase for CoVERS: Humans and wildlife

The CoVERS Study is wrapping up a successful Phase I. Since March, with the help of many citizen scientists and veterinarians in the New England area, we have screened over 500 companion and farm animals for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, and we are very happy to report that there have been no positive tests to date. Phase I was a “wide net” approach, where we enrolled as many animals as possible during a period of high community COVID-19 infection. This included many homes with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 in pet owners. Our results suggest that even in these close, home settings, there’s a low risk of human-to-pet transmission. We are performing final data analysis and writing a paper describing all of our findings and will post it as soon as it’s available. Of course, more work still needs to be done to understand if pets are asymptomatically infected, and we still encourage any pet owners to ask another member of their household to care for their pet, or limit interactions while they’re sick out of an abundance of caution.

Now we’re asking new questions about if and how animals are affected by SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19:

Pets and their humans

We are now approved to test humans and we have an antibody test ready to go. Best of all, there’s no blood needed – we can use antibodies that naturally come out of your gums when you rub them with a sponge! This means we have a window into the past and can look for COVID-19 antibodies in both you and your animals to calculate a transmission rate.

We are seeking animal owners in the New England area who are willing to take swabs from their animals as well as their own saliva samples at home and send them back to us. If you have a current or prior positive COVID-19 test, or are in a group at high risk for infection (e.g. healthcare worker in March-May 2020) and want to enroll, please fill out our registration form here. We can’t do this work without you!

What about wildlife?

CoVERS is getting back to our lab’s wildlife surveillance roots. We are screening wildlife, and are primarily targeting two types of animals: Carnivores and bats.

At this time, natural human-to-animal transmission has only been observed in carnivores, so we are screening wild carnivores (e.g. coyotes, seals) in rehabilitation settings. While rehabilitators are using excellent PPE, disinfection and other infectious disease control precautions, the rehab setting is the closest most wild animals will ever get to humans. Monitoring these animals for COVID-19 serves a dual purpose of protecting vulnerable wild populations, and rapidly gathering data to understand the risk of infection in these species.

Bats are exceptionally good viral reservoirs – that means they can be infected by and transmit many viruses without getting sick themselves. While there is convincing evidence that SARS-CoV-2 developed in bats, the types of bats we have in North America are very different, and it’s not yet known if they are able to be infected at all. But even if there’s a low probability of transmission, the consequences to our bat populations could be huge. Many of our bats, especially little brown bats, have been devastated by White Nose Syndrome. And, of course, the establishment of new reservoirs could seriously affect public health control of COVID-19. We are working with Massachusetts and Vermont Departments of Fish & Wildlife, Tufts Wildlife Center, Colrain Center for Conservation and Wildlife, Cape Wildlife Center and Vermont Bat Center to screen bats and their caretakers to collect these important data fast. In addition, we are working with other bat scientists to test environmental samples they collect in the field to monitor healthy, wild populations for evidence of natural human-to-bat spillover.

While rehabilitation settings are a great way to rapidly understand the risk of natural infection, we are studying these animals because human-to-wildlife transmission can happen anywhere. For instance, evidence of SARS-CoV-2 has been found in sewage water which could get into waterways with aquatic mammals, and food waste and trash are commonly handled by urban wildlife like raccoons. There is a need to assess how easily other species could be infected, if they could transmit it and if infection affects their health. If you are a wildlife professional and would like to get involved, let us know.

3 Comments

  1. Your site is the first I found about COVID and wildlife. I live in France very close to Paris and fox families live in the cemetery close to my house, other live in the parks in and around Paris and can been seen more often since the lockdown- even during the day. (see-in french- : https://www.ouest-france.fr/ile-de-france/val-de-marne/confinement-des-renards-se-baladent-en-pleine-journee-dans-les-rues-du-val-de-marne-6828005).
    You write in the article : https://theconversation.com/is-covid-19-infecting-wild-animals-were-testing-species-from-bats-to-seals-to-find-out-151467, that you have tested nearly 300 wild animals from over 20 species.
    I’m woundering if you did or know any research about SARS-CoV-2 cross-transmission from human to foxes within urban areas.
    Anna S

  2. Hi Anna,
    I’m not aware of any fox-specific studies right now – they might be happening, I just don’t know of them. We have been testing red and grey foxes from urban and semi-urban areas near Boston as a part of our rehab surveillance program and haven’t found any positives yet.
    Foxes are in the same family as dogs, which we know are able to be infected but don’t seem to get sick or spread it. However, we see with even closely related species that sometimes they have very different responses to viruses, so the question of if and how foxes are affected by COVID is still unclear. It’s interesting that foxes around Paris seem to share the niche that coyotes have in many US urban and semi-urban areas!
    Kate

    • I thank You a lot for your clear answer.
      I will continue to read your website and keep up to date with your research

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