Covid-19: Should There be Cause for Alarm at the Veterinary Sector?

The novel nature of the Coronavirus brought with it many conspiracies where the World Health Organisation (WHO) itself released counter statements on some of its earlier postulations.

While registered cases of the virus are staggering across the globe, humans aren’t the only ones affected by the disease. Since the pandemic began, there have been numerous reports of animals contracting the virus, from tigers at the zoo to household pets, like cats and dogs and a new animal in the United States – minks.

According to an August 17 report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), COVID-positive minks have been discovered on two separate farms in Utah. The USDA reports that the farms had experienced unusually high numbers of mink deaths, prompting them to test livestock for the virus.

Minks have previously tested positive for coronavirus outside of the United States and 12 other mink farms in the Netherlands and Spain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the dogs and cats that have tested positive for coronavirus stateside were likely infected by humans, and there’s been no definitive evidence suggesting that the reverse is possible. But some infectious disease experts say that minks may be capable of passing COVID on to humans.

In a June 2020 paper published in Eurosurveillance, the authors, who studied the Dutch coronavirus outbreak in minks, concluded that one worker on one of the affected farms was likely infected by the animals.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Richard Ostfeld, a researcher at New York’s Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, said that the indication of mink-to-human transmission is worrisome. “We definitely need to be concerned with the potential for domesticated animals that are infected to pass on their infection to us,” he said.

With these current trends, it has become worrying how people should live with and treat their pets and livestock. The extent to which one should be cautious with animals with the emerging trends needs to be critically looked at.

Fact-check Ghana has spoken to a veterinary expert about the dangers associated with latest developments and the precautions that need to be taken to avoid human to animal transmission and vice versa. Dr. Kwasi Agyei Safo worked with the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research and currently undertaking some research in the veterinary sector.

He tells us Covid-19 is zoonotic, meaning it can be transmitted between humans and animals, as recent discoveries from several countries affirm.

According to the WHO, diseases emerging the past two to three decades have 70% being zoonotic, and evidence suggests that COVID-19 emerged from animals.

“The scientific data has proven that, the genetic sequence of this virus is closely related to the Coronavirus found in Rhinolophus bats, otherwise known as horseshoe bats. However, there is no scientific evidence to identify the original source of Coronavirus, even though it might have emerged from animals and they are circulating in the horseshoe bats,” he said.

Dr. Safo shares “reports of the disease [Covid-19] being transferred from humans to animals in Germany. Cats have tested positive in Russia, United States (US) and Germany. Minks have also tested positive in Denmark, whereas, Tiger, dog and lion have also tested positive in the US, with China and Hong Kong having dogs testing positive.”

“It means there is much concern as far as public health is concerned and as a country we need to muster up our surveillance system to include the animal population. I am not saying there should be an active form of surveillance in animal population, but people who have tested positive and have contacts with pets and animals should report so that the veterinary council can zone in and have some sampling tests. That will be the best possible public health intervention the veterinary service can provide,” he explained.

The two animals that have proven not to be susceptible to the virus are poultry and pigs, according to Dr. Agyei Safo, “meaning the dogs, cats, and pets are all susceptible to the virus, and evidence showed these animals got it from positive human species who transferred it to their pets. So it means if you are home and you are positive, you can transfer the virus to your pets. So it’s not uncommon for someone to transfer it to animals.”

He said the WHO and the Animal Health International have postulated one health approach ie both veterinary services and human medicine should come together in fighting genetic diseases.

The veterinary services directorate, which is the central lab in Accra, is currently  testing for Covid-19 in humans and not animals, according to Dr. Safo.

“Our lab in Takoradi is also testing for the virus in humans, he said. So when it comes to animals, I don’t think we are doing that much work.  This is because the education has not gone down that much.”

Also, the veterinary expert alluded to the fact that, the manner in which people leave their animals to roam makes it more problematic because the virus has proven to be airborne,. This, he said, calls for the government to involve the veterinary services in curbing the menace.  “It’s a threat to our animal population, both domestic and wildlife,” he said.

The WHO says pigs and poultry are insusceptible to the virus. Dr. Safo, however, undertook some research on poultry at someone’s backyard farming and the outcome was revealing.

“One problem we have as Africans and precisely Ghanaians is that, once the WHO comes with something we take it like that instead of us also doing some research to find out whether we can get something different or not.

“I personally started my own research about poultry. I went to a place in the central region. There is this person who has a poultry farm in his backyard and the person tested positive. When I saw the symptoms the fowls were exhibiting, I took samples of some of them and two of them [poultry] tested positive. And just last week the person died even though his subsequent tests were negative before he died. And these two poultry that tested positive are still in the farm. But when I realised the general interest from the top was not there, I had to stop. And I cannot postulate only from that farm that the virus can now be transferred in poultry, unless tests are run at other places to make that conclusion,” he narrated.

It is important therefore, that government puts up much effort at the veterinary sector, to mitigate the dangers Covid-19 posses to humans and the entire animal population.

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Supported by STAR Ghana Foundation with funding from UKAID and the European Union

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