In early May, Asiatic lions at Hyderabad Zoo (Nehru Zoological Park) tested positive for Covid. At that time, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had said the infection was not caused by any variant of concern. The Ministry specified that all the eight lions that had been infected were isolated. They responded positively to treatment and recovered well.
The tests at Nehru Zoological Park were conducted by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad after the Zoo authorities noticed that a pack of lions were showing signs of dry cough, nasal discharge and loss of appetite. “If animal-to-animal transmission does happen, it is likely to affect zoo animals far more than free-ranging animals. Animals outside don’t live in the kind of density zoo animals reside in," said CCMB Advisor Dr Rakesh Mishra.
The second wave of the pandemic in India has caused enough panic already. It may seem too much to start worrying about animals as well. One can hope that there is no cause of worry for the virus transmission from man to animals or vice versa. But being complacent and ignoring a possible risk is not going to help.
If wild animals in captivity can be infected by the virus, there are concerns about the risk to nearly 130 crores of domesticated livestock and poultry in the country. Dr Mishra stated that the risk to animals living in close environs is higher than the risk faced by free-ranging animals. In dairy farms, the cattle live in a similar density. Any substantial risk to their health can ring alarm bells.
Millions of households in the country depend on the livestock sector and industry. (Photo: Reuters)
The infection spread in the captive wild animals should definitely serve as a wake-up call to an issue of concern. Millions of households in the country depend on the livestock sector and industry. The livestock sector alone contributes 30 per cent to India’s agriculture GDP.
MoEFCC has categorically stated that there is no risk of humans getting infected from animals. The Ministry has also specified that there is no factual evidence that animals can transmit the disease to humans.
These may be brave words, but on what grounds can these claims be substantiated? It is now globally known that the Coronavirus is not contained by any geographical boundary. It does not make a distinction between hot and cold regions. It has been established that the virus was transferred from wild animals to humans. Research has largely indicated that the transfer happened from a bat. In a bizarre twist, we have reason to be fearful of a possible scenario where human beings could infect animals.
In Denmark, mutations of the virus have been observed in minks. Humans are not susceptible to most of these mutations. But 12 people in Denmark have been infected by a particular mutation arising in minks called Cluster 5. It has also been informed that more than 200 people have contracted the strains of the virus found in minks. Any further prevalence of this virus can interfere with the effectiveness of a Covid vaccine. Fears of further transmission from animals to humans or humans to animals cannot be brushed under the carpet.
The intention is not to cause panic. The intention is to flag concern and be aware of the risks that our livestock may face. We need to be cognisant of the Covid risk that may be faced by the livestock sector. People who are Covid positive must distance themselves from their pets. As Covid spreads to villages across India, farmers rearing dairy, poultry, goats or other livestock must stay away from the animals or birds during the course of the infection. This must be the practice till we have conclusive evidence that Covid does not spread either from humans to domesticated animals or from domesticated animals to humans.
Globally, psychologists and other mental health specialists have been worried about the consequences of Covid-enforced isolation upon people. It has been recognised that during this confinement to highly limited interaction, household pets offer great therapeutic benefits.
In mid-February, the College of Veterinary Science (CVS) of Ohio State University said that Covid-19 is spread from person to person and the risk to animals is very low and the risk from animals is even lower. “There is no reason to harm wildlife or abandon a pet out of fear, and fortunately, this does not seem to be an issue in the US. In fact, more people are fostering or adopting cats and dogs during the pandemic. The relationship with a pet can be a great source of comfort, helping to decrease depression, anxiety, and stress,” said the CVS report.
But the jury is still out on the risk of coronavirus to the animal world. In March, The United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC) warned that a small number of pets worldwide, including cats and dogs, have been reported to be infected with the virus that causes Covid-19, mostly after close contact with people. Infected pets might get sick or they might not have any symptoms. Of the pets that have gotten sick, most had mild illness and recovered fully.
The CDC advisory to protect domestic pets is the same as has been advised for humans. According to CDC, one must maintain social distancing from pets if one gets infected. “If you have pets, treat them as you would other human family members to protect them from possible Covid-19 infection. Because there is a risk that people with Covid-19 could spread the virus to animals, pet owners should limit their pet’s interaction with people outside their household”, CDC specified.
This is not the first case when animals were found to be Covid-positive. In early April last year, a four-year-old Malayan tigress had tested positive for Covid at Bronx Zoo in New York. Later, the zoo confirmed that four more tigers and three lions had the virus. Around the same time, two pet cats in New York were the first in the USA to test positive.
The CDC has categorically stated, “We are still learning about this virus, but we know that it can spread from people to animals in some situations, especially during close contact. We know that companion animals like cats and dogs, big cats in zoos or sanctuaries, gorillas in zoos, mink on farms, and a few other mammals can be infected with SARS-CoV-2, but we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected. There have been reports of animals infected with the virus worldwide. Most of these animals became infected after contact with people with Covid-19.”
Caution is key.