COVID-19 a potential danger to B.C.’s marine mammals, according to study

COVID-19 a potential danger to B.C.'s marine mammals, according to study
WatchIt's a potential danger in the deep for marine mammals. A new study from Dalhousie University indicates that certain species of whales, seals and other endangered animals could fall victim to the COVID-19 virus through wastewater and sewage.

The waters off Vancouver Island are full of marine life, including southern resident orcas.

The endangered population of southern killers whales numbers just 74. But now there is a new risk to the species and other marine mammals.

A new study from Dalhousie University indicates the orcas and some other marine mammals could contract COVID-19 through the wastewater discharged from our local shores.

Dr. Graham Dellaire, the director of research in the Department of Pathology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, is also the lead researcher of the study.

“When we looked at 36 marine mammals, virtually all of them looked like they would be susceptible.  But several of them were predicted to be as susceptible as humans, or more so,” Dellaire said.

Dolphins and beluga whales get sick from related coronaviruses. And because they are social, an infection in one animal quickly becomes catastrophic. While there are no documented cases of marine mammals contracting COVID-19, Dellaire thinks that a sea lion that died recently of respiratory illness in Columbus, Ohio may be the first.

“In light of our study that we just published, I’ve been tweeting at them today that they should test the games keepers.  And they should also test that animal if the remains are available,” Dr. Dellaire said.

As the case counts around the world grow, the risk to the environment is also increasing.  Dr. Heather Buckley is part of a University of Victoria team studying wastewater.  They collect sewage samples from local pumping stations this week to detect potential outbreaks of COVID-19.

She said it’s not really surprising that other mammals are also going to be susceptible to the virus, or to variants of it.  “This is a really important flag and reminder to us that the ways that we handle our waste streams as humans has impact on broader eco-systems.  And that we need to be thinking about those consequences when we are discharging any kind of waste into the environment,” Buckley said.

The study found that more than half of the world’s vulnerable species are already at risk of COVID-19.

READ MORE: 525 new cases of COVID-19 in B.C., including 7 in Island Health

Mary GriffinMary Griffin

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