By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.
More disturbing, in December the United States Department of Agriculture confirmed the first case of a wild animal infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers found an infected wild mink in Utah near a mink farm with its own COVID-19 outbreak.
Are humans transmitting this virus to wildlife? If so, what would this mean for wild animals – and people too?
How Viruses Hop Between Species
When viruses move from one species into another, scientists call it spillover. Thankfully, spillover doesn't occur easily.
To infect a new species, a virus must be able to bind to a protein on a cell and enter the cell while dodging an immune system the virus hasn't encountered before. Then, as a virus works to avoid antibodies and other antiviral attackers, it must replicate at a high enough volume to be transmitted on to the next animal.
This usually means that the more closely related two species are, the more likely they are to share viruses. Chimpanzees, the species most closely related to humans, can catch and get sick from many human viruses. Earlier this month, veterinarians at the San Diego Zoo announced that the zoo's troop of gorillas was infected with SARS–CoV–2. This indicated it is possible for this virus to jump from humans to our close relatives.
Some viruses tend to stay in a single species or in closely related species, while other viruses seem innately more capable of large species jumps. Influenza, for example, can infect a wide variety of animals, from sparrows to whales. Similarly, coronaviruses are known to regularly jump between species.
The question of how many and which species can be infected by SARS-CoV-2 – and which ones might be able to support continued circulation of the virus – is an important one.
Searching for COVID-19 in Wildlife
For human-to-wildlife spillover of SARS-CoV-2 to occur, an animal needs to be exposed to a high-enough viral dose to become infected.
The highest-risk situations are during direct contact with humans, such as a veterinarian's caring for an injured animal. Contact between a sick person and a pet or farm animal also poses a risk, as the domestic animal could act as an intermediate host, eventually passing the virus to a wild animal.
Another way COVID-19 could spill over from humans into animals is through indirect infection, such as through wastewater. COVID-19 and other pathogens can be detected in waste streams, many of which end up dumped, untreated, into environments where wildlife like marine mammals may be exposed. This is thought to be how elephant seals in California became infected with H1N1 influenza during the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
To study whether spillover of SARS-CoV-2 is happening, our team at Tufts is partnering with veterinarians and licensed wildlife rehabilitators across the U.S. to collect samples from and test animals in their care. Through the project, we have tested nearly 300 wild animals from over 20 species. So far, none – from bats to seals to coyotes – have shown any evidence of COVID-19 by swab or antibody tests.
Other researchers have launched targeted surveillance of wild animals in places where captive animals have been infected. The first confirmed infection in a wild mink was found during surveillance near an infected mink farm. It's not yet clear how this wild mink got the coronavirus, but the high density of infected minks and potentially infectious particles from them made it a high-risk location.
Bad for Animals, Bad for Humans
When a virus infects a new species, it sometimes mutates, adapting to infect, replicate and transmit more efficiently in a new animal. This is called host adaptation. When a virus jumps to a new host and begins adapting, the results can be unpredictable.
In late 2020, when SARS-CoV-2 jumped into farmed mink in Denmark, it acquired mutations that were uncommon in humans. Some of these mutations occurred in the part of the virus that most vaccines are designed to recognize. And it didn't just happen once – these mutations independently arose in mink farms multiple times. While it's not yet clear what impact, if any, these mutations may have on human disease or the vaccine, these are signs of host adaptation that could allow novel variants of the virus to persist and reemerge from animal hosts in the future.
Another risk is that SARS-CoV-2 could cause disease in animals. Ecologists are especially concerned about endangered species like the black-footed ferret, which is closely related to minks and thought to be very susceptible to the virus.
Human-to-wildlife spillover has happened before. In the late 20th century, the Ebola virus jumped from humans into great apes and has resulted in devastating consequences for these endangered animals. More recently, a human respiratory virus has been detected in threatened mountain gorilla populations and has caused deaths as well.
But perhaps the biggest risk to humans is that spillover could result in the coronavirus establishing a reservoir in new animals and regions. This could provide opportunities for reintroduction of COVID-19 into humans in the future. This month researchers published a paper showing that this had already happened on a small scale with human–to–mink–to–human transmission on mink farms in Denmark.
While our team has found no evidence of COVID-19 in wild animals in the U.S. at this time, we have seen convincing evidence of regular spillover into dogs and cats and some zoo animals. The discovery of the infected wild mink confirmed our fears. Seeing the first wild animal with natural COVID-19 is alarming, but sadly, not surprising.
Jonathan Runstadler is a professor of infectious disease and global health at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University.
Kaitlin Sawatzki is a postdoctoral infectious disease researcher at Tufts University.
Disclosure statements: Jonathan Runstadler receives funding from NIH/NIAID. Kaitlin Sawatzki receives funding from the NIH/NIAID.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
<div id="dadb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2ad8cb566c9b4b6d2df2693669f6f9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1357796504740761602" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA</div> — USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)<a href="https://twitter.com/USFWSPacific/statuses/1357796504740761602">1612558888.0</a></blockquote></div>
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Winter is supposed to be the best season for wind power – the winds are stronger, and since air density increases as the temperature drops, more force is pushing on the blades. But winter also comes with a problem: freezing weather.
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While traditional investment in the ocean technology sector has been tentative, growth in Israeli maritime innovations has been exponential in the last few years, and environmental concern has come to the forefront.
theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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