Can animals get infected with the Covid virus? What are the chances for human-to-animal and animal-to-human transmission of the virus? Among numerous other uncertainties, these two also remained the prominent unanswered questions in the early days after the pandemic set in.
There were conflicting news reports. Some fake news reports were also making the rounds. Regarding the origins of the virus, a strong view emerged that the virus first originated at a site of human-animal interaction, viz., a wet market in Wuhan in China. This also added to suspicions about the possible two-way transmission.
A message on 10 February 2020 in one of the WhatsApp groups in Bangalore went viral. It cautioned members not to buy chickens as some infected with the novel Coronavirus had been found in Bangalore. It caused widespread alarm and drastically brought down the consumption of chicken and eggs in the city. But authorities dismissed it as fake news.
“From a scientific and medical point of view, whether it is in India or elsewhere, the virus doesn’t spread from chicken,” clarified Dr.G Devegowda, President, Institution of Veterinarians of Poultry Industry, Karnataka.
Similar rumours spread in Hyderabad too. “For the past few days we have seen fake messages/posts on social media claiming that broiler chickens are spreading Covid. As such there is no scientific evidence to back this claim,” clarified a statement by Dr. P Venkateshwar Reddy, Chief Veterinary Officer of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, issued at about the same time of the first nationwide lockdown.
On 11 March 2020, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) wrote to the Chief Secretaries of all states and UTs against abandoning animals or inflicting cruelty on them over fears of Covid-19. AWBI had clarified that as per the World Health Organisation (WHO), dogs and cats could not spread the infection, and so, people should not abandon their pets.
Experts were also denying the possibility of Covid-19 spreading to pets or from pets to the pet-keepers. The SARS group of viruses has numerous virus strands. Some of them infect animals too. But experts clarified that Canine Coronavirus and Poultry Coronavirus were different from SARS-CoV-2, the Covid-19 virus that infects human beings. Covid-19 is human-specific, some experts asserted. Initially, authorities too denied that Covid-19 would get transmitted to the pets from the pet-keepers and vice versa. Still, there were many unconfirmed reports of two-way transmission.
But then a study conducted between June-September 2021 by Waleemas Jairak et al, whose findings were published in a research article in Nature on 19 May 2022, established conclusively that Sars-CoV-2 was detected in a domestic cat and a dog studied in Covid-19 households in Thailand. The article also noted that SARS-CoV-2 spill over from humans to animals have been reported globally in 32 countries in at least 17 animal species such as cats, dogs, mink, otter, pet ferrets, lions, tigers, pumas, snow leopards, gorillas, white-tailed deer, fishing cat, binturong, coati, hyena, lynx, hippopotamus and hamster (as of January 2022).[i]
Neela, a 9-year-old Asiatic lion, died in Arignar Anna Zoological Park, popularly known as Vandalur Zoo, in Chennai, on 2 June 2021 after tests confirmed that it had SARS-CoV-2 infection. 9 more lions also tested positive.
An employee of the Vandalur Zoo told Covid Response Watch, “A young daily-wage worker who used to feed beef to the animals started feeling feverish but continued to work. Later he tested positive for Covid. In all probability, he would have transmitted the virus to the animals. We struggled very hard to save the remaining 9 animals. Only after sustained oxygen supply they survived. Some storks, ostriches, and other birds also died and they were tested but the results were negative. Except for lions, the virus did not spread to other animals or birds.”
Anyway, this episode confirmed that zoo animals were at risk in India as they could get Covid from human beings. In fact, zoos were closed to the general public at the time of the first lockdown itself. Delhi Zoo was shut down in March 2021 itself with the lockdown and reopened on 1 August 2021 without any exclusive additional Covid-control protocol for zoos except for insisting on 3-feet distance from the animals to be maintained by the visitors.
Again Delhi Zoo was closed in January 2021 as there was a spike in cases in Delhi. It was again reopened only in March 2022. Kolkata Zoo was reopened in February 2022, albeit with reduced hours and capacity.
Initially, zoo authorities everywhere struggled to get adequate meat supplies and other feed stuff for animals. On the very day when the first lockdown was declared by PM Modi on 24 March 2020, the Central Zoo Authority, a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, wrote to States and Union Territories to declare supply of food, drinking water, and veterinary services to zoos as “essential service” for clearance to operate under Covid-19 restriction. The Vandalur Zoo employee in Chennai informed that as supply of food was through tenders, to maintain contract obligations the contractors made special arrangements for collecting and preparing meat for supply to zoos in government trucks, even though abattoirs and meat shops were closed in general.
The state of veterinary services
Like all other professions, veterinary services also took a hit due to Covid-19. Dr.Sahat Mani Singh, a veterinary doctor working for the Veterinary Department of Uttar Pradesh told Covid Response Watch, “From the government veterinary department in Uttar Pradesh, we used to extend door-to-door veterinary services to farmers and others who keep cattle. Initially, people were hesitating to invite us to their farms fearing that we would transmit Covid-19. They used to call us up and describe the symptoms over the phone and we used to suggest the medicines and they would go and buy the medicines from the medical shops and administer them. Only in cases like injuries, we used to go directly. Thanks to the crisis in transporting the injured animals, ambulance services for animals have started coming up now.”
Dr.Mani Singh also added that private veterinary services did a good job during the pandemic. Some quacks used to say that an ‘evil eye had been cast’ on the diseased animals and prescribed drugs arbitrarily. The veterinary department used to organize block-level camps for them to train them in preliminary scientific treatment.
He also added that he had read only in newspapers about cases Covid transmission from animals to humans and he had not personally come across such cases in his fieldwork.
Bias and superstitions
Bias and superstitions relating to animals were rife during the pandemic. Due to some superstition, there was rampant use of cow dung to treat Covid-19. But a matching superstition was that Covid was spread mainly by meat-eaters, especially those who eat beef, viz., Muslims. Due to this communal bias, a Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi was blamed for spreading Covid and poor Muslims belonging to this sect of Islam were targeted, even for physical attacks, as ‘super-spreaders’.
Organized gangs of storm-troopers from the Hindu Right used the pandemic restrictions to justify their blocking of trucks carrying cattle to abattoirs and even to authorized beef export houses in cities like Kanpur. In Uttar Pradesh, the saffron-robed Hindu priest Chief Minister Yogi allowed liquor shops to reopen early but did not allow meat sales and the traditional butcher shops to reopen.
It was not only people who were deprived of non-vegetarian food. People even had to struggle to get food for their pets. Worse still, stray animals too were deprived of food. Most stray animals in cities used to roam around hotels, dhabas and the joints of street-food vendors and they used to get leftover food. They even survived on leftover food from the household.
During the lockdown, all hotels, dhabas, and other food joints were shut down. Even street food sold by hawkers was banned though there was no evidence that Covid virus would spread through the food chain. Thanks to the pandemic-imposed scarcity of food, even the leftover food from households became scarce. Due to fear that Covid-19 could be transmitted from animals to humans, even those households that used to normally patronize stray animals started chasing them away. Hunger killed many strays in cities and carcasses were rotting in the streets, posing a big health hazard.
Feeding stray animals
Animal lovers swung into action to save the strays dying without food. The AWBI wrote to Chief Secretaries again on 23 March 2020 to arrange for providing food to large animals among the strays and also to permit people to go out and feed the small animals under lockdown restrictions. Kerala Chief Minister entrusted the local bodies to feed stray animals. As a personal gesture, the DGP Sylendra Babu, entrusted with the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services Department, urged his department personnel to feed the strays and fire service personnel cooked food and fed the stray animals in Chennai and other cities of Tamil Nadu.
Pandemic impact on bovine and meat economy
The 2019 Livestock Census showed there were 192.49 million heads of cattle in India. India is No.1 in production of milk and stands fourth in the world in beef exports. India produces 7.7 million tonnes of meat a year. Livestock economy accounts for 4.11% of GDP in India.
Though meat supplies were also declared as part of “essential services,” all eateries were closed and non-veg food was not available. Some States ordered closure of abattoirs and traditional butcheries. The pandemic affected livestock production by disrupting fodder supply lines, and supply of slaughter cattle to abattoirs and even to conventional slaughter houses and shops of traditional butchers. Villagers, even from the peri-urban villages surrounding the cities, could not transport cattle to the cities. Many lost jobs.
The supply disruptions were so severe that the price of 1 kg of mutton shot up to Rs.1300 for online orders during the lockdown in Hyderabad from around Rs.700—750 in pre-Covid days. Fr.Stanley from Hyderabad told Covid Response Watch that prices have now stabilized at Rs.900 (with bones) to Rs.1000 (without bones) per kg and normalcy in sales has been restored.
Production of poultry products suffered due to lack of supply of poultry feed and shortage of (migrant) labourers. Animal fodder was included as one of the essential items during the lockdown and so also poultry products and meat. Still, transportation of eggs and chicken became virtually impossible for more than two months. On an average, 700—800 trucks used to carry poultry items from the poultry town of Namakkal, Tamil Nadu. But during Covid-19 lockdown, even 70—80 trucks could not be operated. The poultry industry was devastated.
It is a matter of sheer luck that the transmission of the Covid among livestock was not as serious as among human beings. But the devastation of the bovine economy was severe. The loss to the farmers and livestock-related businesses were colossal. Lesser lockdown excesses and greater incentives to the owners of livestock and livestock businesses from the government could definitely have mitigated the losses.
B.Sivaraman is a researcher based in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh