There are lots of SARS-CoV-2 variants out there. The virus changes a bit all the time.  However, there’s a lot of, well, concern about a few particular “variants of concern” (VOCs).

VOCs are “OC” because they have mutations that could increase their infectivity (i.e. ability to infect people), their virulence (i.e. severity of disease they cause) or decrease the effectiveness of current vaccines or antibody-based treatments. There are a few main VOCs currently circulating, but the B.1.1.7 variant that was first detected in the UK has received the most attention. In people, it seems to be much more transmissible than other “normal” strains. There’s also been some some suggestion in media from the UK that B.1.1.7 might be more virulent as well as more infectious, but that’s still not clear.

So, how infective are these VOCs to animals?

We have no idea. It’s possible that increased infectivity in people could also mean increased infectivity in animals. It’s also possible that increased infectivity in people could mean less infectivity in animals.  We just don’t know at this point.

How will we find out how infective these VOCs are to animals?

Some experimental study is presumably underway, and the WHO has indicated a need to test SARS-CoV-2 VOCs in experimental animal models so we can learn more about them.

We’ll also have to see what results come from field studies, but one of the issues is there are still only relatively small numbers of infected animals (outside of mink farms) in which we’ve been able to find the virus before it disappears.

  • Based on antibody detection, infection with SARS-CoV-2 in pets, at least, seems to be pretty common when their owners have COVID-19.  Yet, in our surveillance work, we’ve only picked up a few animals shedding the virus, in large part because of logistics and timing of sampling.
  • We’re working with our national lab to sequence the few samples in which we’ve found the virus, but the small numbers limit what we can say.  If we find a VOC, we found it.  If we don’t, we can’t say much more, since you need either luck or a high prevalence in the population to detect something with a small number of samples.

Could VOCs (or other variants) infect animal species that are not susceptible to the “normal” strains of SARS-CoV-2?

Probably not, but we can’t rule it out completely.  To start infecting other species altogether would require a much larger change in the virus, which isn’t likely to happen all of a sudden. We still have to pay a bit of attention to species that we think aren’t susceptible, because we can’t really guarantee how fast or how much the virus will change.

What is the best way to limit the impact of VOCs in animals, and the impact of animals spreading VOCs?

  • Control SARS-CoV-2, and all its VOCs, in people.
  • Limit contact of infected people with animals.  (Sound familiar?)