I am sure that readers are fed up with hearing about Coronavirus, but this is so important that that I am obliged to talk about it in this column.
The full name of the virus is SARS2-Coronavirus, and the disease that it causes is Covid-19, an abbreviation of "Coronavirus Disease 2019".
One of the more recent developments in the science world is a concept known as "One Health". Animals and humans are so closely intertwined that human health and animal health are really just different sides of the same coin. And that coin is "One Health". Covid-19 is a good example of this.
The virus was first seen in a "wet market" in Wuhan, a city in northern China. Genetic studies show that the virus is very similar to a virus seen commonly in bats, and also to one seen on Pangolins (ant-eater type mammals). The wet market is so-named because it's a place where live and dead animals change hands. And live animals are often slaughtered in the market.
I've visited animal markets in China in the past, and there was an obsession with everything needing to be as fresh as possible. This meant that as well as meat being for sale, live animals were there in abundance: I saw dogs and cats, as well as pigs and chickens. They were being sold to be eaten, but they were alive.
This is what was going on in that wet market in Wuhan. The theory is that a live bat (or pangolin) was sold, then was slaughtered. The animal was carrying a Coronavirus infection, and somehow the virus had mutated in such a way that it was able to infect a human being. It's likely that one person was splashed with blood from the animal; this animal blood would have been teeming with live virus particles, and hence the first person was infected. And this mutated virus was able to cause pneumonia in this first person. They would have coughed up thousands of viral particles which would have been passed on to another human. And they reckon that every person who is infected passes it on to at least two people. Two go to four, four to eight, eight to sixteen, and so on and so on. That's how we've got to where we are today.
So the original source of this disease pandemic was animals.
Now to the next question: are animals involved in the continuing spread of Covid-19? Pet animals now live as part of our household, as family members. Are they at risk from this disease? And could they be implicated in any way with its spread?
The good news is that the answer to these questions is "no" and "no". Our pets - dogs, cats, rabbits and others - cannot develop Covid-19 and they cannot become infected with the virus, so they are not implicated in the spread from human to human. There is absolutely no need for people to worry about their pets making a complicated and worrying situation any worse than it already is.
The only known issue with pets is that they can, in some cases, act as "fomites". This strange-sounding word is used to describe objects in the environment that can act as temporary homes for infectious agents. If someone coughs and a droplet lands on a surface like the back of a chair, the virus particles in that droplet can remain on the chair for 2 - 3 days. So if someone then touches the chair, and puts their hand to their mouth, eyes or nose, they may become infected with the virus. In this situation, the chair is technically classified as "fomites".
So the same situation applies to pets: if someone has Covid-19, and they cough beside their pet, droplets full of virus could land on the animal. Then if someone else comes along and pets the animal, they could get virus particles on their hand. If they then put their hand to their mouth, eyes or nose, they could pick up the infection.
There was one dog in Hong Kong, belonging to a person who had Covid-19, who was found to be "weakly positive" to the virus: they were not infected with the virus, but the situation emphasised the point that if someone is actively suffering from Covid-19, they should try to get someone else to care for their pets. Otherwise their pet could innocently act as a place where the virus could land, and could then be picked up by someone else who has contact with the pet.
Animal welfare groups are worried that even a remote hint that pets are in any way involved with Coronavirus could lead to pets being abandoned en masse. I need to stress that there is absolutely no reason for people to do this. Animals should remain part of our families throughout this crisis. We are not going to start throwing our chairs, tables and beds out onto the streets. So equally, there's no reason to abandon our pets. And more than that, we all have a legal and moral obligation to look after our pets, ensuring that they are fed, exercised and watered. We all need to carry on doing this. If we get sick, then we should ask a friend or family member to help us. But that should be the limit of the impact of this stressful situation on our pets.
These are difficult, extraordinary times. One of the joy of pets is that they give us emotional support. And right now, we have never needed more of that.
Cherish your pets: they are there for you.