Experts: Canine coronavirus in Sarawak no cause for alarm

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Sibrandes said there is no evidence that the canine coronavirus could cause disease in humans or can be transmitted between humans. — Picture by Marcus Pheong
Sibrandes said there is no evidence that the canine coronavirus could cause disease in humans or can be transmitted between humans. — Picture by Marcus Pheong

KUALA LUMPUR, June 2 — Malaysians need not be concerned about the reported discovery of a canine coronavirus in specimens taken from patients with pneumonia in Sarawak, said experts.

According to Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) veterinary immunologist Dr Farina Mustaffa Kamal, there was no evidence to prove the discovery was due to interspecies transmission.

“I will say that it is in the early stage of study, we need to have more studies to actually look at canine coronavirus transmission to humans.

“So it’s not conclusive enough to state that it is transmission from dogs to humans,” Dr Farina told Malay Mail when contacted.

Dr Farina also said the study so far only showed the coronavirus could be grown in dog cell line.

“My point of view is that I want to see if this virus can grow in human cell line.

“So that’s why I say more studies need to be done before we can conclude,” she said.

Dr Farina was responding to a news report titled ‘New Coronavirus Detected In Patients At Malaysian Hospital; The Source May Be Dogs’ published by the US’ National Public Radio.

She stressed that the study did not show any transmission between pet dogs and humans, and urged readers of the report not to react in panic.

“This is something also you yourself could assist us in promoting awareness.

“Sometimes people believe in these reports and jump to conclusions,” she said.

No easy infection

Explaining coronaviruses, UPM consultant clinical microbiologist Prof Zamberi Sekawi said it was not trivial for these to jump between species even if recent events such as the Covid-19 pandemic show this was possible.

On the reported canine coronavirus in Sarawak, Zamberi said it was not unusual as all species of animals host their own viruses.

“We have our own coronaviruses even before Covid-19 one,” he explained.

He added that just as canines, other animals such as felines also have their own coronaviruses.

However, Zamberi stressed that in most instances, the coronaviruses do not cross between species without significant adaptation or mutations.

“So it’s not easy for a virus to jump from one species to another, meaning that a human coronavirus does not necessarily infect the cats and dogs that easily,” Zamberi explained.

On the discovery of canine coronavirus in samples taken from humans in Sarawak, Zamberi also said this was not yet conclusive evidence of interspecies transmission.

Aside from saying it was too soon to conclude any possible canine-human transmission, Zamberi it was even more premature to say there could be transmission between people.

The microbiologist said attention should be given to the coronavirus just as any that are discovered but gave his assurance that there was no imminent danger at the moment.

Zamberi said that the pandemic now has shown that it was wise to show “a bit of caution” in the light of such information.

“We are not talking about just exposure to dogs, many people are exposed to many animals around the world, especially bats and other wildlife, these are potential threats to humans,” he said.

Not related to Covid-19

Sunway University president Professor Sibrandes Poppema stressed that the study only showed the presence of the canine coronavirus and not other issues.

“The relevant finding is that the virus most likely transmitted from dogs to humans and settled in the nasopharynx of these individuals.

“However, it is important to keep in mind that they did not demonstrate that this virus was causing the pneumonia, in other words whether the virus was pathogenic in humans,” he said.

He also stressed that there was no evidence whatsoever linking the canine coronavirus to SARS-CoV-2 that causes Covid-19, as their genetic sequences shared less than 50 per cent similarity.

Sibrandes also said that there is no reason to be concerned about this specific coronavirus since there is no evidence that it could cause disease in humans or can be transmitted between humans.

“However, the findings confirm once more that viruses can transmit from animals to humans and the lesson is that it is necessary to test for a much wider variety of viruses in individuals with pneumonia, especially in rural areas or other conditions where transmission is possible such as in livestock farming,” he said.

* An earlier version of this article contained an error which has since been rectified.

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