Coronavirus: COVID-19 a possible risk to endangered species - study

A number of animal species already deemed at risk of extinction could be facing a new threat the human world is all too familiar with - COVID-19.

Scientists in the US say the Western lowland gorilla and Sumatran orangutan have the same amino acids on their ACE2 receptor proteins as humans, which the coronavirus hooks into, enabling it to infect cells.

"Animals with all 25 amino acid residues matching the human protein are predicted to be at the highest risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2 via ACE2," said Joana Damas, postdoctoral research associate at the University of California, Davis.

"The risk is predicted to decrease the more the species' ACE2 binding residues differ from humans."

In humans, the virus is incredibly infectious, having found its way into tens of millions of us this year alone, despite unprecedented efforts to stop it. 

The UC Davis team looked at the ACE2 receptors in more than 400 different creatures. About 40 percent of the animals they deemed susceptible to infection are presently classified as threatened.

The western lowland gorilla is critically endangered thanks to human activities such as poaching, mining and logging, but are also at risk from diseases like Ebola. The Sumatran orangutan has also seen much of its habitat destroyed by humans, and there are only a few thousand left in the world. 

Other animals the SARS-CoV-2 virus - which causes COVID-19 - believed to be at risk of infection include grey whales, chimpanzees, bonobos, giant anteaters and bottlenose dolphins. At medium risk are cats, sheep and cattle. There have been recorded cases of cats catching the virus.

The animals most and least at risk.
The animals most and least at risk. Photo credit: UC Davis

The good news is that just because an animal can contract the disease, doesn't necessarily mean it will get sick. The virus is believed to have originated in bats before passing through an intermediate host before making the leap to humans - neither likely to have been adversely affected. 

"Zoonotic diseases and how to prevent human to animal transmission is not a new challenge to zoos and animal care professionals," said study co-author Klaus-Peter Koepfli, a senior research scientist at Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.

"This new information allows us to focus our efforts and plan accordingly to keep animals and humans safe."

Sumatran orangutan.
Sumatran orangutan. Photo credit: Getty

The study's findings were based on genome analysis, so there's a chance the virus' ability to infect other species might not be as pronounced in the real world. 

"The actual risks can only be confirmed with additional experimental data," the researchers said. "But for those species that have known infectivity data, the correlation is high."

Animals deemed low-risk included alligators, mice and sea lions.

The research was published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.