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There have been more than 1 million human deaths globally from the coronavirus so far, 213,000 of them in the United States.
The race to stem that tide of deaths is significantly affecting a variety of animal species, in some cases in very surprising ways.
Before we get to the meat of the matter, if you’re curious about the ethics of animal testing (a long-term and complex issue about which many people feel strongly) check out this piece from Stanford University examining both sides of the debate.
With that preface stated, here are six animals impacted by the pandemic itself, and the attempt to cure and treat COVID-19:
There have been few solid cases of animal-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, and minks are one example. As a result, mink farms have culled their stock, resulting in the deaths of many thousands of minks around the world.
In the United States, as many as 8,000 minks in three states died from COVID-19 infections after workers at farms passed the disease to the animals. Veterinarians said they do not believe humans were at risk from catching the virus from the animals in this case.
Mice are often used in animal testing, but when the pandemic began, laboratories faced a different problem. With no scientists and lab techs coming to work, the mice were left without anyone to care for them.
The solution was to euthanize thousands of mice, presumably so they wouldn’t starve to death. “It was heartbreaking,” one researcher said, “scientifically and emotionally.” As Peter Smith, associate director of Yale University’s Animal Resources Center, told Science Magazine, “This is a difficult situation for everyone, and I assure you the decision to euthanize animals is not made lightly.”
There are currently four U.S.-made coronavirus vaccines in late-stage trials, meaning they are being tested on humans. Nonetheless, some researchers are saying they want to continue testing vaccine candidates on monkeys, in order to do comparisons.
For example, Nancy Haigwood, who directs the Oregon National Primate Research Center, told Science Magazine that monkey-human comparison trials are necessary: “We should take a cold, hard look at all of the data and ask ourselves, ‘What appears to work best?’” Other researchers argue that once you’re in human trials, primate studies are unnecessary and wasteful. There is, by the way, a shortage of research monkeys in the United States.
Squalene, a substance commonly derived from shark liver oil, is a key ingredient in many vaccines. One shark advocacy organization, Shark Allies, has said that 500,000 sharks could die to provide enough vaccine to immunize the world.
It’s a problem not only for sharks but for humans, because manufacturers have never needed that much squalene that quickly. “Countries producing shark squalene may soon need the oil for their own vaccine,” Shark Allies said. “The supply chain has never been tested at the scale that a coronavirus vaccine would demand.”
The blood of horseshoe crabs is a key ingredient in vaccine development (among other medical treatments) used to make sure that there are no bacterial toxins in whatever is being injected. Before the pandemic, there were already 50,000 horseshoe crab deaths a year.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the crabs may be in trouble. “If 5 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine are needed, then that results in 50,000 batches of COVID-19 vaccine being produced to meet that need,” one researcher told CT Insider.
Bats may be where the coronavirus began. Some scientists believe the virus fermented in bat populations, was passed on to pangolins and then to humans. So, of course some people are going on what the National Resource Defence Council called “bat-killing sprees.”
The Indonesian government culled hundreds of bats. Cubans have been using fire to kill bats. People in India have been systematically hunting them. In Peru, literal torch-wielding mobs have descended into caves with bat murder on their minds.
And, of course, it makes no sense, as Winifred Frick, chief scientist at Bat Conservation International, told the NRDC.
“COVID-19 is a human disease at this point,” she said.