Could dangerous new variants evolve in pets and farm animals?

People have been panicking about COVID-19 in animals since the very start of the pandemic. There’s now plenty of evidence that SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – can cross from humans into other animals. This is known as spillback. The virus is capable of infecting a range of species, from hamsters to gorillas.

Reassuringly, the vast majority of animals do not get as seriously sick from an infection as humans do. Also, at present there are very few documented cases of animals then transmitting infection back to humans. But a new concern is now being discussed: what if SARS-CoV-2 could be replicating unnoticed in animals and mutating? Could new variants emerge that can reinfect humans and create more havoc?

SARS-CoV-2 has been evolving in humans throughout the pandemic, resulting in many new variants arising, and there are two factors that appear to have helped variants emerge. First is the vast number of infections in people worldwide, as the virus has the chance to mutate every time it reproduces. The second is the much smaller number of chronic infections that happen in people whose immune systems aren’t fully functioning. When facing a weak immune system, the virus isn’t quickly wiped out, and so has the time to evolve ways of evading immunity.

Is it possible that these evolution scenarios are also going on in animals, but that we’re unaware of them happening?


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