BY HILLARY LEUNG / HONG KONG MARCH 5, 2020 The case of a coronavirus patient’s pet dog that tested positive for COVID-19 has grabbed global attention. But some experts caution that the results are not yet conclusive.
And the real concern, animal welfare activists say, is that pet owners may panic and abandon—or even kill—their dogs and cats in response to the news. Even if the 17-year-old Pomeranian quarantined in Hong Kong is infected, health authorities and experts say there is no evidence it is capable of transmitting the virus.
Already, in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak is believed to have started, authorities are reportedly euthanizing animals that are found in homes of people infected with the virus. “It only worries me in the sense that people panic and act irrationally, in the same way that people rushed out and stocked up on toilet paper,” says Sally Andersen, the founder of Hong Kong Dog Rescue.
The initial news on Feb. 27 from Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department that a pet dog had returned a “weak positive” result for the virus was met with skepticism. Hong Kong authorities said that the result could be caused by environmental contamination—in other words that the dog picked up traces of the virus in the same way an inanimate object might.
But on Wednesday, authorities issued a new statement that the dog has since been tested two more times using nasal and oral cavity samples, also returning positive tests. The Agriculture Department said that after consulting medical and veterinary experts and the World Organization for Animal Health, officials concluded it is a case of human-to-animal transmission of the virus. This would make the Hong Kong case the first publicly reported instance of COVID-19 infecting a dog.
While the exact origin of COVID-19 is still not known, researchers believe that the novel coronavirus outbreak began after the virus made the jump from animals to humans. More tests needed to confirm infection, experts caution
While the Hong Kong Agriculture Department said experts it consulted “unanimously agreed” that the dog in question has a low-level of infection, others point out that additional tests could prove more conclusive.
David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who also studied the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, says authorities should to collect two rounds of blood samples to test for COVID-19 antibodies. Authorities took the first round of blood when the dog was admitted into quarantine; since two rounds of blood samples are needed, and they can only be taken about a week apart, authorities have yet to do the second blood draw. “Only if there is evidence of the antibody in the blood, then we can confirm that it has been infected,” Hui says. “If the specimen are only weakly positive, it could still be environmental contamination.”