In this interview, Berhe Tekola, FAO’s Director for Animal Health and Production, sets the record straight about COVID-19 when it comes to animals – be that pets or livestock, and eating foods of animal origin. He also explains what the Organization has been doing to create better understanding and awareness, mitigating COVID-19’s impacts on people, animals and the environment.
Can animals spread COVID-19 to humans?
All known human cases of the COVID-19 pandemic are due to direct or indirect contact between humans. There is still no evidence that animals (livestock and pets) or animal products can spread COVID-19 to humans. Investigations into the possible role of animals in the current COVID-19 pandemic are ongoing.
Most of the viruses in the coronavirus family have an origin in animals, with many originating in bat populations. However, the SARs-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, is a new virus. To date, all known cases of COVID-19 are due to direct or indirect contact between humans.
How about interacting with animals? Does that pose a threat to people?
There is no evidence that pets, livestock, fish, domestic poultry or draft animals can spread COVID-19 to humans.
This means, very simply, that it is safe to keep, rear, maintain and care for pets, draft animals, and livestock.
That said, while there are no COVID-19-specific precautions to be taken when interacting with animals, it is always best – as a general rule – to practice good hygiene and comply with biosecurity measures. This means washing hands with soap and water after touching animals and cleaning and disinfecting any farm machinery/equipment.
We also strongly urge everyone – people, countries, agencies, organizations and companies – to continue to treat animals with the utmost respect and practice internationally accepted animal welfare standards. Misleading information on animals’ role in the COVID-19 pandemic continues to circulate. That’s why it’s so important that everyone is well informed, and continues to treat animals humanely. There is no justification for abandoning, rejecting, mistreating or killing animals because of concerns over COVID-19.
Also, FAO does not recommend routine testing of animals for this virus. However, because the situation is ever evolving, public and animal health officials may decide to test certain animals showing symptoms and with known contact with people who have COVID-19 out of an abundance of caution.
What about the other way around – are animals at risk from people infected with the virus?
Animals are likely to be exposed to the virus from infected humans who are showing or not showing symptoms.
If you’re not showing symptoms: make sure to wash your hands with soap and water before and after interacting with an animal, and clean up after domestic animals properly.
If you are showing symptoms of respiratory disease or have been confirmed to be infected with the virus: restrict contact with animals during your illness, just as you would with other people; ask another member of the family to take care of the animals in your household, if possible; if you need to take care of the animals yourself, wear a mask and wash your hands before and after interacting with animals (handling animals and their food).
What about trading animals? Are there risks?
We have no evidence to suggest that livestock or animals in general, including fish, as well as animal products, or agricultural products can spread COVID-19 – whether imported or not. And as these don’t play any role in the transmission of COVID-19 to people, there is no reason to limit trade or movement of animals and their products, unless people are moving with animals and there are national travel restrictions in place for humans.
Is it still ok to eat foods of animal origin?
The key thing for everyone to remember is this: a person cannot get infected by COVID-19 from consuming, selling, buying or trading food, but must continue to practice good hygiene and food safety measures as always.
There are no known human cases of COVID-19 that can be linked to foods of any kind, including meat and products from fish, wildlife, pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables.
Equally important – following strict environmental sanitation, personal hygiene and food safety measures to prevent cross-contamination is key to control any foodborne illness, ensure food safety, and, overall, reduce the likelihood of diseases to emerge or reemerge.
Any general recommendations for people handling animals to produce foods or when preparing foods of animal origin – regardless of COVID-19?
Here are some common recommendations on how to properly handle food of animal origin to ensure food safety:
● Avoid eating raw and undercooked foods of animal origin (meat, eggs, milk) to reduce exposure to all viruses and other foodborne pathogens.
● Prior to and after cooking, meats should always be stored in a way that they cannot contaminate other foods and they cannot be re-contaminated after cooking.
● Keep the environment and all equipment, tools and surfaces clean.
o The virus from contaminated products once in contact with objects and surfaces can render them infectious up to nine days.
o Most viruses, including coronaviruses, however, can be destroyed and removed using most common disinfectants and sanitizers used in food processing.
● Personal hygiene is essential for food safety, and ill people should avoid handling food.
o Good hygiene practices are particularly important when handling fresh foods that may be consumed raw, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and ready-to-use foods that are to be consumed without further heat treatment.
● Raw wild meat or uncooked dishes based on the blood of wild animals should not be consumed.
Appropriate slaughter techniques are necessary to minimize food safety risks.
● Wet markets, where live animals are held, slaughtered and dressed pose a particular risk for pathogen transmission to both workers and customers alike. To reduce transmission risks, these areas should be cleaned regularly. Care is required during the stages of stunning, defeathering, dehairing, hide removal and evisceration to minimize contamination.
● People should not handle, slaughter, dress, sell, prepare or consume any animal protein that originates from wild animals or livestock that are sick or that have died from unknown causes. These practices place people at high risk of contracting any number of infections.
● Any unusual morbidity or mortality of animals should be reported to the animal health authorities.
Overall, we must make sure that good food safety and hygiene practices are followed.
Are people who consume bats, bushmeat, and other wildlife at risk of contracting COVID-19?
If you eat wildlife, please be sure to practice good food safety and hygiene practices (outlined above). Do not eat meat or products from sick animals, and do not consume raw wild meat or uncooked organs or tissues.
The point is legal wildlife consumption is safe, IF safe food handling and preparation practices are followed.
However, from a health perspective and since a number of zoonotic pathogens have emerged in bats, it is advisable to stop eating bats. Bats are very tolerant of viruses and this is why they carry a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic pathogens than other wildlife. Also, many bats species are threatened or endangered, making them off limits for hunting and illegal to use as a source of food.
What about “wet markets”? Do they pose a threat?
“Wet markets” – markets selling fresh meat and fish as well as live animals – are considered critical areas where pathogen spill-over between humans, wildlife and livestock could occur. The proximity of live animals in these markets could allow the exchange of pathogens between wildlife and domestic species, which may then develop into new virus strains able to infect humans and livestock. However, this needs to be confirmed by science-based evidence.
To reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases, FAO recommends: ensuring good hygiene and food safety measures, implementing international animal welfare standards, and enforcing appropriate controls in wildlife trade within and across countries, as well as on the sale of wild meat at wildlife markets in towns and cities.
What is the veterinarians’ role during this time?
It is important for the veterinary services to reassure everyone that is safe to keep, rear, maintain and care for pets, draft animals and livestock, and also for vets to maintain their activities even during lockdown (e.g. surveillance, vaccination, outbreak investigations in the case of disease events, basic veterinary care, border control, etc.).
Veterinary Authorities should also remain informed and maintain close contact with Ministries of Health and Forestry, Natural Resources or Wildlife, to ensure coherent and appropriate interventions and investigations, risk communication messages and risk management using a One Health approach. Effective biosecurity risk management and cooperation with inspection authorities should be maintained at borders.
Any detection of SARS-CoV-2virus in an animal (including information about the species, diagnostic tests, and relevant epidemiological information) should be reported to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
How has FAO supported this area of work?
As a part of its mandate, FAO coordinates prevention, preparedness and detection of priority pathogens in animals, in close collaboration with World Health Organization (WHO) and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), using the One Health approach. This approach is a unifying force to safeguard human and animal health, reduce disease threats and ensure a safe food supply.
With regard to COVID-19, FAO has activated an incident coordination group, which regularly brings together global, regional and country partners to ensure global coordination of activities and communication on the disease from the perspective of animal health and livelihood resilience.
We are funding research and training throughout our veterinary laboratory network, in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and using nuclear techniques to try to detect the possible presence of the virus in animals and the environment. The resulting arsenal of scientific evidence will help to manage the pandemic in the most effective way. Preventing the disruption of aquatic and terrestrial animal production due to the COVID-19 human pandemic is of the utmost importance for FAO. In order to do so, the Organization has been providing guidelines for farmers and animal health workers.