Should people be wary when cats jump into their laps? Is it okay to pet someone’s dog passing by on the street? Are veterinarians in danger during checkups?
Since March, a team of Tufts researchers has tested hundreds of animals looking for clues on whether they can get the virus and pass it along to humans, or vice versa, in the Coronavirus Epidemiological Research and Surveillance (CoVERS) study.
“We know this virus came out of the animal population, so there’s some reason to believe this could affect other animals,” said Dr. Jonathan Runstadler, professor of infectious diseases and global health at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts. ”We know there are sporadic reports of transmission from humans to pets.”
The risk of the virus spreading in the other direction, from animals to humans, is “considered to be low,” the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.
A German shepherd from New York became the first dog to test positive for the virus in the country, the US Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday. Several cats have tested positive since late April.
Out of the nearly 400 animals the Tufts team has sampled, none have tested positive.
Along with common domestic animals, the Tufts team has tested pigs, bats, horses, and exotic animals, according to Runstadler.
The lack of positive tests was expected, Runstadler said, but it’s no reason for the team to stop the research any time soon.
“[The pandemic] is an active outbreak, and with viral outbreaks, things can change,” he said.
To test animals, the team uses materials similar to those in a human test kit. The researchers assemble kits themselves, including swabs, media, and molecular reagents.
In the first phase of the study, animal owners who have volunteered get their animals tested at the lab or gather nasal and mouth swabs from their pets at home and submit them.
“The best outcome would be that we don’t see infections in animals, and that we see that trend continue over time, and that it’s not a risk,” Runstadler said.
The second phase of the study focuses on pets owned by people who have the virus or are at higher risk of having the virus due to contact with someone who was infected. Researchers are looking for the rare circumstances in which a human may have transmitted the virus to an animal, or the even rarer circumstance in which the animal transmits the virus to a human, Runstadler said.
Researchers are particularly interested in these circumstances for future reference, Runstadler said.
When the next pandemic occurs, the Tufts researchers want scientists to have a solid understanding of animal transmission to be better prepared.
“We expect that events like this epidemic will happen again,” Runstadler said.
The research will end, he said, when the coronavirus pandemic is over.
Matt Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.