Endangered species prone to COVID-19 infection

Researchers recently assessed the potential of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to bind to the ACE2 receptor in 410 vertebrate and endangered species. Ancient world primates and great apes, which have amino acids identical to humans at the binding site, tend to bind ACE2. In addition, these animals are likely to be susceptible to coronavirus-related infection as are humans.

Animal species endangered by Sars-CoV-2

squirrel with protective mask next to a tree in the park

So, according to the new study from the University of California, humans are not the only species at risk from SARS-CoV-2. An international team of scientists used genetic analysis to compare the main cellular receptor ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) for the virus in humans in 410 different species of vertebrates. These included birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. ACE2 is normally found in many different types of cells and tissues. These are, for example, epithelial cells in the nose, mouth and lungs. In humans, 25 amino acids of the ACE2 protein are important for the virus to bind and enter cells. The researchers used these 25 amino acid sequences of the ACE2 protein and modeling its predicted protein structure along with the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. This enabled them to evaluate how many of these amino acids they will find in the ACE2 protein of the different species.

Animals with all 25 amino acid residues that match the human protein have the highest risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 via ACE2. The risk decreases the more the ACE2 binding residues of the species differ from humans. About 40 percent of the species that may be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 are classified as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They may be particularly susceptible to human-to-animal transmission. The data provide an important starting point for identifying vulnerable and threatened animal populations at risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The study authors hope their research inspires practices that would protect both human and animal health during the pandemic.

Susceptible species

Baboon on empty country road during the Covid 19 pandemic

Several endangered primate species such as the western lowland gorilla, the Sumatran orangutan and the northern white-cheeked crested gibbon are predicted to have a very high risk of infection from SARS-CoV-2 via their ACE2 receptor. Other endangered species classified as high risk include marine mammals such as gray whales and bottlenose dolphins, and Chinese hamsters. Domestic animals such as cats, cattle, and sheep were at moderate risk, while dogs, horses, and pigs are not susceptible to ACE2 binding. How this relates to the risk of infection and disease has yet to be determined by the scientists in future studies. However, the correlation is high for species known to be infectious. The authors advise caution against over-interpreting the predicted animal risks on the basis of the calculation results. The real risks can only be confirmed with additional experimental data.

man with mouthguard stroking his dog in the park during quarantine due to coronavirus

Research has shown that the immediate ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 likely came from a bat species. It has been found that bats have a very low risk of contracting the new coronavirus through their ACE2 receptor. This agrees with the actual experimental data. Whether bats transmitted the novel coronavirus directly to humans or whether it passed through an intermediate host is not yet known, but the study supports the idea that one or more intermediate hosts were involved. The data enables researchers to find out which species may have served as intermediate hosts in the wild. In this way, they support efforts to control a future outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infection in human and animal populations.

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