WHO is Tracking COVID-19 in Animals But ‘Needs Better Surveillance’ as Hong Kong Finds Virus in Hamsters
Maria van Kerkhove

World Health Organization (WHO) researchers and partners are “constantly looking at” animals’ susceptibility to COVID-19, and transmission both from humans to animals and vice versa, WHO’s Dr Maria van Kerkhove told the global body’s weekly briefing on Tuesday.

“We understand there are a number of species that can be infected with SARS-CoV2 and then there’s the possibility – we call that a reverse zoonosis – it goes from humans back to animals, and then it’s possible for the animals to reinfect humans,” said Van Kerkhove, WHO’s lead on COVID-19.

“That risk remains low, but it is something that we are constantly looking at because what we don’t want is to have, as this virus circulates you know, it has the opportunity to infect people as well as animals,” she said.

However, she added that there needed to be better surveillance of which animals are susceptible, tracking this and infected animals over time.

Working groups are researching animal-human interface

Of the seven million COVID-19 genome sequences that had been shared by scientists, around 1 500 were from animals, she added.

“This is not something we talk about very much, but we have many working groups at the looking in animals at the animal-human interface to look at the possibility of human infecting animals as well as animals infecting humans back again.”

This follows news that COVID-19 (Delta variant) had been detected in a Hong Kong pet shop owner, a customer and at least 11 hamsters, resulting in officials deciding to cull around 2000 hamsters, rabbits and other mammals, according to media reports. 

Hong Kong’s assistant director of agriculture, fisheries and conservation, Thomas Sit Hon-chung, told a press conference that while no animal-to-human transmission has been recorded, the hamsters could infect other animals and these could in turn infect humans, according to Hong Kong’s The Standard newspaper.

Not the time to make a ‘massive shift’ on COVID tests

Van Kerkhove also said that the WHO had been COVID-19 tests globally – based on nasal, throat and saliva samples – to ensure their sensitivity to the Omicron variant. 

“We do know that the tests that are in use right now remain sensitive to the Omicron variant,  including the antigen-based tests, the PCR tests, and saliva-based tests that are out on the market.”

She added that this was not the time to “make a massive shift to recommend one or the other”, but rather to “ensure that testing is accessible, affordable, and is reliable in all countries”. 

Patients being tested needed to know what to do, while governments and global organisations needed to know where the virus is and where the virus is spreading, she added. 

There was a 20% increase in recorded COVID-19 cases in the past week – around 19 million new cases – but deaths were holding steady at about 45,000.

Narrative that Omicron is mild ‘hurting response’

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was concerned about the impact Omicron was having on “already exhausted health workers and overburdened health systems”.

“I remain particularly concerned about many countries that have low vaccination rates, as people are many times more at risk of severe illness and death if they’re unvaccinated,” said Tedros.

He added that while Omicron may be less severe, on average, “the narrative that it is mild disease is misleading and hurts the overall response”.

“Make no mistake, Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities. The virus is circulating far too intensely with many still vulnerable. for many countries, and the next few weeks remain really critical for health workers and health systems,” he added.

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