Managing risks to wildlife from Covid-19 in humans

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RMLWidespread infection of the human population with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) raises the possibility that wild animals could become infected and thereafter be a potential source of onward transmission to humans and other animals.  This might not only impact adversely on wildlife health but could also pose a significant threat to the effective management of Covid-19 in human populations, including the potential to give rise to new variants of the virus.  It is therefore extremely important that those of us working in ecological consultancy do everything we can to minimise risks of human to wildlife transmission.

To date infection in free-living wildlife has only been detected in a single mink in Utah, USA, but cases in captive mammals (e.g. tigers, lions, gorillas), pets (cats, dogs, ferrets) and experimental studies suggest that several other species may also be susceptible to the virus.   The main risks of human to wildlife transmission are likely to arise when handling animals, working in close proximity or in confined spaces where they are present, and exposing them to materials and surfaces that we could have contaminated.  On the basis of what we currently know about susceptibility to this kind of virus, bats and badgers may be of particular relevance in the UK, although we should treat any wild mammal as potentially susceptible.

The Wildlife Health Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)and the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) have produced useful guidance on the precautions that should be taken when working with wild mammals.  This is generic advice meant to cover a range of species and although it is targeted at researchers, these basic precautions are also relevant to aspects of ecological consultancy.  For those who work on bats there is some more tailored guidance from the IUCN Bat Specialist Group.

It is the collective responsibility of all of us to try to ensure we do not inadvertently contribute to the spillover of this virus into wildlife populations, but ecological consultants have a particularly important role to play.

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