A new computational study predicts that several critically endangered primate species are at a very high risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is responsible for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The research, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences this month, assessed the susceptibility of 410 species of vertebrates, including 252 mammals, to the virus and identified a number of mammals that can potentially be infected via their ACE2 proteins (angiotensin converting enzyme-2) - the main receptor for the virus.
The species identified by the study that are at “very high” risk of infection include the critically endangered Western lowland gorilla and Sumatran orangutan, as well as the endangered chimpanzee and bonobo. White-tail deer, Chinese hamster, muskrat, giant anteater, and marine mammals such as killer whale and common bottlenose dolphins are at a “high” risk of infection, while the Siberian tiger, sheep, cat, and cattle are at a “medium” risk of infection.
The results of this study can potentially help in the identification of intermediate hosts for the virus and therefore reduce the opportunity for a future outbreak of COVID-19. The researchers suggest that the species at highest risk for infection represent an opportunity for spillover of the virus from humans to other susceptible animals. According to a report in The Scientist, Dr. Harris Lewin, Professor of Evolution and Ecology and at the University of California, Davis and an author on the paper, argues that if there is an intermediate species between bats and humans it is likely in the two highest risk categories, which include fewer than 100 species. Dr. Lewin thinks wild hamsters might be worth looking into as possible intermediate hosts for transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from bats to humans.
Although these results still need to be confirmed empirically, they may potentially help to identify animal models of COVID-19 and assist the conservation of animals both in native habitats and in human care.