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Media Release: Danger in the deeps: SARS‑CoV‑2 spread through wastewater could have devastating consequences for whales, seals and other endangered marine mammals

Posted by Communications and Marketing on November 10, 2020 in News

Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 (Halifax, NS) Certain species of whales, seals and other endangered marine mammals are predicted to be highly susceptible to infection from COVID-19, according to Dalhousie University scientists who say the virus could be spread to the animals through improperly treated human sewage and wastewater.

In a study published in Science of the Total Environment, the team describes how it used genomic mapping to determine which marine mammals would be vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They looked at key amino acids that the virus binds to and found that there were striking similarities between those in humans and in several marine mammals, including dolphins, beluga whales, seals and sea otters.

Graham Dellaire, director of research in the Department of Pathology at Dalhousie, led the research that used a modeling approach to predict a marine mammal’s susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. The team found at least 15 marine mammal species were susceptible to infection from SARS-CoV-2 because of their ACE2 receptors -- the critical protein required for the virus to enter and infect the cell.

Importantly, more than half of the species determined to be vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 are already at risk globally.

“Many of these species are threatened or critically endangered,” says Dr. Dellaire. “In the past, these animals have been infected by related coronaviruses that have caused both mild disease as well as life-threatening liver and lung damage.”

The team predicts that the majority of whale, dolphin and porpoisespecies -- 18 out of 21 -- have the same or higher susceptibility to the virus as humans, while eight out of nine seal species are also predicted to be highly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2.

“Our major concern is in developing nations, where there is already a disparity in public health and the wastewater treatment infrastructure required to handle the COVID-19 crisis,” says Saby Mathavarajah, a Killam pre-doctoral fellow in Dr. Dellaire’s lab who co-authored the report. “Monitoring susceptible species in these high-risk areas around the world will be pertinent for protecting wildlife during and post-pandemic.”

Studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 is excreted in feces and can survive in water for up to 25 days, raising the possibility that wastewater provides a separate mode of spread for this coronavirus, as has happened in Spain, Italy and France where the virus was detected in untreated sewage.

Many jurisdictions have at least primary waste treatment but sewage systems can be overwhelmed in certain conditions, leading to the overflow of raw sewage directly into waterways that are home to vulnerable mammals, according to the researchers. Even wastewater treated via primary means has been shown to have detectible levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA. Primary treated wastewater can be released from settling ponds or lagoons, a risk the researchers identified as a potential issue in Alaska where beluga whales could be infected from sewage leaking into local waterways from the state’s system of lagoons.

There have been no documented cases of SARS-CoV-2 in marine mammals to date, but both dolphins and beluga whales have been infected with related coronaviruses in the past. And since most marine mammals are social, it is also possible for coronaviruses to be spread between animals through close contact. So, once one animal is infected it could threaten entire populations.

The researchers hope their findings can help shape policy decisions regarding wastewater management around the world and protect at-risk marine mammal species that may be exposed to this coronavirus.

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Media Contact:
Alison Auld
Senior Research Reporter
Dalhousie University
Cell: 1-902-220-0491