What causes COVID-19?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a family of RNA (ribonucleic acid) viruses. They are called coronaviruses because the virus particle exhibits a characteristic ‘corona’ (crown) of spike proteins around its lipid envelope. CoV infections are common in animals and humans. Some strains of CoV are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted between animals and humans, but many strains are not zoonotic.

In humans, CoV can cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (caused by MERS-CoV), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (caused by SARS-CoV). Detailed investigations have demonstrated that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civets to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans.

In December 2019, human cases of pneumonia of unknown origin were reported in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China (People’s Rep. of). A new CoV was identified as the causative agent by Chinese Authorities. Since then, human cases have been reported by almost all countries around the world and the COVID-19 event has been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a pandemic. For up to date information please consult the WHO website.

The CoVwhich causes COVID-19 has been named as SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV); this is the scientific name. The virus may also be referred to as “the COVID-19 virus” or “the virus responsible for COVID-19”. COVID-19 refers to the disease caused by the virus.

What precautionary measures should be taken when companion or other animals have close contact with humans suspected or confirmed to be infected with SARS-CoV-2?

There is no evidence that companion animals are playing an epidemiological role in the spread of human infections with SARS-CoV-2. However, reports from infected mink farms suggest that in these environments there is the possibility for transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from mink to humans following infection of these animals.

Because animals and people can both be affected by this zoonotic virus, it is recommended that people who are suspected or confirmed to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 limit contact with animals.

When handling and caring for animals, basic hygiene measures should always be implemented. This includes hand washing before and after being around or handling animals, their food, or supplies, as well as avoiding kissing, being licked by animals, or sharing food.

People who are suspected or confirmed to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 should minimise close direct contact with animals, including farm animals, zoo animals, other captive animals, and wildlife; particularly species which have demonstrated to be susceptible to infection with SARS-CoV-2. As good practice, appropriate and effective biosecurity measures should always be applied when people have contact with groups of animals e.g. on farms, at zoos, and in animal shelters.

People who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 should avoid close contact with their companion animals and have another member of their household care for them. If they must look after their companion animals, they should maintain good hygiene practices and wear a face mask if possible. Animals belonging to owners infected with SARS-CoV-2 should be kept indoors in line with similar lockdown recommendations for humans applicable in the country or area and contact with those animals should be avoided as much as possible.

Considering recent reports from the Netherlands, risk-based measures should be considered on mink farms to avoid the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 infection to the animals, to reduce the risk of subsequent spread between animals and to humans, and to reduce the risk of an animal reservoir being established.

There is no justification in taking measures directed at companion animals which may compromise their welfare.
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