HomeMagazinesCovid-19 and South Africa’s livestock: Is there a risk?

Covid-19 and South Africa’s livestock: Is there a risk?

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

  • Covid-19 has led to the death of almost seven million humans since the World Health Organization declared it to be a public health emergency of international concern on 30 January 2020.
  • There have been limited reports of livestock (such as cows, horses, goats and sheep) being naturally exposed to the Covid-19 virus. However, there is no evidence of clinical illness or further spread from infected cattle to in-contact animals.
  • Coronaviruses – including SARS-CoV-2 – are a family of viruses that infect animals and humans. “Most coronaviruses are species-specific and cause variably severe intestinal, respiratory, neurologic or systemic disease in animals, but do not infect humans.”
  • Humans infected with Covid-19 can spread the virus to animals during close contact. Therefore, anyone with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 should avoid contact with animals, including game, to protect them from possible infection.
  • While the risk of humans contracting Covid-19 from animals are slim, Prof Claude Sabeta of the University of Pretoria says it is important that people shouldn’t hunt or eat wild animals that appear sick or are found dead.

Covid-19 has led to the death of almost seven million humans since the World Health Organization declared it to be a public health emergency of international concern on 30 January 2020. But how much of a threat does this zoonotic disease currently pose for South Africa’s livestock?

There have been limited reports of livestock (such as cows, horses, goats and sheep) being naturally exposed to the Covid-19 virus. However, there is no evidence of clinical illness or further spread from infected cattle to in-contact animals. This is according to Prof Claude Sabeta, a virologist and internationally rated scientist from the University of Pretoria’s Department for Veterinary Tropical Diseases.

“There is no evidence of intraspecies viral spread in the field, but cattle serum samples have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, implying that cattle can become infected and seroconvert through exposure to Covid-19 infected keepers.” However, it is important that ruminants continue to be considered in outbreak studies, and routine testing to monitor the spread of novel SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) variants across the livestock population is warranted.

“Domestic ruminants such as sheep, cattle or goats showed poor susceptibility,” Prof Sabeta adds. “In fact, very few animals contracted the infection through animal-to-animal spread.”

Read more about the legalisation surrounding feedlots.

Covid in humans versus animals

Coronaviruses – including SARS-CoV-2 – are a family of viruses that infect animals and humans. “Most coronaviruses are species-specific and cause variably severe intestinal, respiratory, neurologic or systemic disease in animals, but do not infect humans.”

However, some of these viruses do mutate in a way that allows them to infect humans. “Infections in humans can range from mild to severe.” Symptoms include fever, tiredness, chills, muscle aches, cough, difficulty breathing and diarrhoea.

Preventing contamination

Humans infected with Covid-19 can spread the virus to animals during close contact. Therefore, anyone with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 should avoid contact with animals, including game, to protect them from possible infection. “People who hunt, trap or work closely with or handle game should take the necessary precautions to prevent the potential spread of the virus,” Prof Sabeta says.

There are several diseases that can be transmitted between wild animals and people. This includes SARS-CoV-2, as well as other viruses, bacteria and parasites. He advises producers to protect their cattle from contracting infection. Spread can be mitigated by workers wearing a well-fitting mask and limiting cattle from coming into contact with respiratory secretions.

While the virus can spread from humans to animals (reverse zoonosis), the risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people is low. “Pets worldwide, including cats and dogs, have been infected with the virus mostly after close contact with people with Covid-19.”

Learn more about the new veterinary rules.

Hunting and consumption risk

While the risk of humans contracting Covid-19 from animals are slim, Prof Sabeta says it is important that people shouldn’t hunt or eat wild animals that appear sick or are found dead. “Report any sick or dead animals to your local wildlife authority. In addition, when handling a carcass (such as dressing or skinning), wear gloves and eye protection, and keep pets and hunting dogs away from carcasses and discarded tissues.” Hunters should also consult with local authorities to properly dispose of unwanted carcasses.

Knives and other equipment and surfaces should be washed and sanitised with a bleach solution. Gloves should be removed afterwards, and hands should be washed with soap and water. Alternatively, a hand sanitiser could be used. Hunters should also change their clothing and footwear if possible.

There is no evidence that properly prepared and cooked food can spread the Covid-19 virus, he says. “Cook your game meat to recommended safe internal temperatures (74°C). Coronaviruses are killed by normal cooking temperatures.”

Treating infections

Prof Sabeta says any coronavirus infection is treated symptomatically. “The veterinarian may recommend that the animal should be isolated. If he or she recommends quarantine and you can care for the isolated animal, it is important that it is not moved.” – Susan Marais, Stockfarm

For more information, send an email to Profs Claude Sabeta at claude.sabeta@up.ac.za, Jannie Crafford at jannie.crafford@up.ac.za or Melvyn Quan at melvyn.quan@up.ac.za.

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