Research underway to understand how COVID-19 affects different animal species

Posted at 1:57 PM, May 12, 2020

Bobbi Brink has devoted her life to the animals that call the Lions Tigers & Bears Sanctuary home.

"To me, they're kind of like my children," said Brink, founder and director of the Alpine, California sanctuary.

Each animal rescued and brought to the 93-acre sanctuary carries wounds from the past.

"We're their voice, so we help get them out of situations where they don't belong or shouldn't be," said Brink.

Because she doesn't rescue primates, Brink wasn't overly concerned with COVID-19. Non-human primates, like the great apes, were thought to be most at-risk, because their genetics are closest to humans.

That was until news of a Bronx Zoo tiger testing positive for coronavirus.

"When we first got the results, that was the concern. Were we going to have a lot of cases?" said Dr. Karen Terio, who studies diseases in animals.

Dr. Terio is a veterinary pathologist and chief of staff of the Zoological Pathology Program at the University of Illinois.

She got a call from the Bronx Zoo when their tiger Nadia showed symptoms of COVID-19.

The animals receive a specialized test designated for a veterinary lab and cannot be used for humans.

"But the good news is the number of cases of animals that have tested positive has been really, really low," said Dr. Terio.

Yet, scientists still want to know how the virus affects different species.

"What sorts of species can be infected? Where can the virus sit? Could the virus infect a tiger and then mutate in a way that makes it more susceptible to humans or less susceptible to humans?" said

Lab research shows some animals, like cats and ferrets, are susceptible to COVID-19. While others, like pigs, ducks, and chickens, appear not to be.

In the real world, only a handful of dogs and cats have tested positive, and there's still no evidence of animals giving the virus to humans.

"In all of these situations, it's the animal that's been exposed to the person that had the virus," said Dr. Terio.

Zoos, on the other hand, typically deal with thousands of visitors. Brink says they won't be quick to reopen, and when they do, it'll reopen to small groups.

"Zoos are sort of looking at, 'ok, what animals are the public in contact with that is maybe less than 6 feet, and do we need to think about precautions in those situations? Or might there be certain parts of the zoo that open up and other parts maybe not so much yet, until we have a better understanding of how susceptible species are,'" said Dr. Terio.

As research continues, Brink says she's doubling down on sanitary precautions, focused on protecting the animals she's dedicated her life to giving a second chance to.

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