Are pigs susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus?
- Kind of, but not really. There are conflicting experimental data that show no or very little susceptibility to the virus.
Why did we talk a lot about pigs and SARS-CoV-2 initially?
At the start of the pandemic, we were worried about the potential for this virus to infect pigs because of their ace2 receptor, which is used by SARS-CoV-2 to invade pigs’ cells. If the virus can’t enter an animal’s cells, it can’t infect them. Different animals have slightly different ace2 receptors on their cells. The pig ace2 receptor is quite similar to the one people have, suggesting there could be similar susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. Looking at ace2 receptors has been interesting, but we’ve also seen the limitations of this method, with some purportedly low-risk species being susceptible and some purportedly high-risk species being resistant. Ace2 is only a part of the picture, so while it’s worth considering, it really doesn’t answer the question of whether there’s a concern with pigs.
Trying to grow the virus in a laboratory in cell lines from a particular animal species can provide some additional information on potential susceptibility. In one study, SARS-CoV-2 was grown in 2 of 3 pig cell types, but did not damage the cells. In another study, the virus was grown in pig cell lines and caused some cell damage. These all raised concerns about the virus’ ability to infect pigs, but there are limitations to what in vitro studies can tell us. To get the real story, we need to look at real pigs.
So, forget about pig cells – are actual pigs susceptible to SARS-CoV-2?
In three separate studies (Shi et al., Schlottau et al., Meekins et al.), pigs were experimentally inoculated with SARS-CoV-2 and mixed with naive pigs. Nothing remarkable happened. None of the pigs got sick and all samples collected were negative for the virus. Antibodies against the virus weren’t found in any animal. All of these results indicated that the pigs were not infected, and there was a collective sigh of relief as it appeared that concerns about pigs were unnecessary.
In another study, pigs were exposed to the virus via the nose, trachea and injection. All the pigs stayed healthy and the virus wasn’t detected in any samples, but antibodies against the virus were found after pigs were injected with the virus. Exposure by injection doesn’t tell us much about natural infection, and the other results are consistent with no natural susceptibility.
However, leave it to Canadians to be disruptive – an experimental study conducted by the CFIA found slightly different results in pigs. It didn’t raise major concerns, but it suggested things are not not quite as clearcut. In that study, 16 pigs were exposed to a higher dose of the virus than in previous studies. Once again, nothing remarkable happened. Some developed mild discharge from the eyes for a few days. One had a slight cough and was mildly depressed for a few days. However, low levels of virus were detected from respiratory samples by PCR from two of the sixteen pigs, although live virus could not be isolated. The virus was also isolated from a lymph node of one pig, and antibodies were detected in the blood of two pigs, supporting some level of true infection. Two pigs were added to the exposed pigs 10 days after inoculation, and they did not get infected. Overall, 5 of the 16 pigs (~30%) had some evidence of mild infection. So, this study showed some degree of susceptibility, but with infrequent mild disease and no evidence that pigs are infected to the degree that they would be able to pass on the virus to other animals or people.
Have any pigs outside of the lab been infected with SARS-CoV-2?
There are no reports of infected pigs to date, but I’m also not aware of any testing of pigs on farms. Field data are always useful because experimental studies don’t tell the full story of what happens in the “real world.” Some data about pigs exposed to infected farmers would be useful to have, to round out the story, but it would probably be low yield research since it’s quite unlikely anything would be found.
What should be done with pigs?
The same general recommendations apply as for other animal species. While the risks are low, we can’t say they are zero. If we keep infected people away from animals, we don’t need to worry about human-to-animal transmission, and any subsequent animal health or animal-to-human transmission issues. While the odds of someone infecting a pig are very low, it’s best to avoid exposing pigs to infected people whenever possible. That may not be an option on small farms run by one person or a family, but the more we can keep infected people away from animals, the better. In short, better to be safe than sorry.
Next up for animal reviews: probably mustelids (mink and ferrets).