Though the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19) is often referred to as "the coronavirus," there are different varieties of this virus. Many coronaviruses occur among animal populations and can be transmitted to humans through a zoonotic event, in which the virus mutates to infect a wider variety of host species. The transfer of coronaviruses from animals to humans has become increasingly frequent. This reality has several causes, such as the mass food production industry and the growing accessibility of global travel. Despite the hundreds of coronavirus types, there are only seven known strains that can infect humans. However, scientists believe they have discovered an eighth human coronavirus, coming from dogs, at a Malaysian hospital.
Scientists have long been aware of the existence of many different strains of canine coronaviruses. Yet, there has been no knowledge of the ability of these canine viruses to transmit to humans until their discovery in human nasal samples. This specific canine coronavirus was identified unintentionally to create a more inclusive test for a broader range of coronaviruses or a pan-CoV test. In response to the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Leshan Xiu, a graduate student at Duke University, began to develop this more general test to contrast the ultra-specific nature of the PCR test used to identify COVID-19. This development was used on past nasal specimens from a Malaysian hospital on patients with pneumonia. Out of the 301 samples tested, eight patients were positive for a new canine coronavirus. Doubtful of the discovery's accuracy, the scientists sent their findings to veterinarians and virologists at the Ohio State University to confirm that no laboratory contaminant falsely imitated the canine coronavirus. Here, experts confirmed that this was, in fact, the first reported instance of canine coronaviruses being transmitted to humans.
The definite implications of this discovery remain unclear. Virologist Anastasia Vlasova reports that the canine coronavirus contains a genetic mutation similar to the mutation in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that allows it to spread rapidly. Additionally, this virus's capacity for human-to-human transmission has not been confirmed.
The identification of this new canine coronavirus should not incite fear but rather spark action. While scientists could not have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, many of its causes can be eradicated to prevent future pandemics from viruses like the new canine coronavirus, but only with global initiative. First, measures need to be taken to halt climate change, which dramatically increases the likelihood of a pandemic. Flooding due to climate change facilitates the spread of waterborne diseases, and extreme climate shock causes the displacement of people to urbanized areas, leading to overcrowding and a greater risk for the spread of disease. Also, human-animal contact must be controlled, and reforms are necessary within the food-production industry. This has become a vast global health issue. The conditions that animals are being held in significantly increase the likelihood of mutations of animal viruses and zoonotic events.