The Los Angeles Public Health Department is facing growing criticism over its decision to offer free COVID-19 testing for animals, despite there being no positive cases reported among animals in the area.
LA Public Health announced the initiative on Aug. 20 and said it has received funding from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to monitor COVID-19 in animals in Los Angeles County.
“This project will help us to learn more about COVID-19 from a One Health perspective, meaning that we can learn more about the significance of COVID-19 in human, animal, and environmental relationships,” the public health body said.
“Some of the funds will support local testing of animals for SARS-CoV-2. We will partner with and offer free testing to various animal care facilities and agencies throughout LA County. Our goal is to test many different species of animals including wildlife (deer, bats, raccoons), pets (dogs, cats, hamsters, pocket pets), marine mammals (seals), and more,” LA Public Health stated.
The department noted that pet owners may be eligible to get their furry friends tested if they were exposed to a human or animal with COVID-19 or has symptoms of COVID-19. The tests are also eligible for “pocket pets” such as “fancy mice/rats, hamsters, hedgehogs” and more that have contact with people, even if none of those people have tested positive for COVID-19 recently.
Out of the 177 animals that have been tested in Los Angeles County so far, including dogs, cats, bats, raccoons, skunks, rats, and sea lions, none have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Aug. 18.
The new program has been heavily criticized on social media, with one Twitter user complaining about taxpayer funds being “frivolously spent,” while another stated that free testing “means your tax dollars.”
Elsewhere, another Twitter user who claimed to work in veterinary medicine said she knew “nothing about this [expletive] …animals don’t get Covid-19.”
According to the CDC, “there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to people,” although there have been a limited number of reports of the virus being spread to people from infected mammalian animals during close contact. The public health agency noted that this is rare, though.
The agency advised that people with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife, pointing to documented cases of animals becoming infected with the virus after contact with people with COVID-19.
“We don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” the CDC noted. “There is a possibility that the virus could infect animals, mutate, and a new strain could spread back to people and then among people (called spillback),” the agency added. “More studies and surveillance are needed to track variants and mutations and to understand how SARS-CoV-2 spreads between people and animals.”
According to a COVID-19 data tracking dashboard for cases in animals set up by the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, there have been 717 “SARS-CoV-2 animal events” around the world since February 2020.
An “event” is considered by the university and society as “when one single case or several epidemiologically related cases were identified by the presence of viral RNA (proof of infection) and/or antibodies (proof of exposure) in an animal.”