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Is there a new coronavirus strain that jumps from dogs to humans?

Old news, truthfully retold. Is there a new Covid strain that can transfer from dogs to humans and should you be worried? The Big Issue investigates

coronavirus dogs

Illustration credit: Miles Cole

Every week in Fact/Fiction, The Big Issue examines spurious claims, questionable studies or debatable stories from the press to determine whether they are fact or fiction. This week The Big Issue looks into news of a new coronavirus that reportedly jumps from dogs to humans.

How it was told

If you’re a dog owner, it’s been a big week in science for canine companions and the coronavirus.

On the one hand (or perhaps paw), there was the news that dogs can sniff out traces of Covid in less than a second. On the other there was altogether more concerning news about a coronavirus making the jump from dogs to humans.

We’re going to focus on the latter story, which came from a study at an East Malaysian Hospital that was published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal.

The study was widely covered in the press both domestically and internationally but there were differences in how it was portrayed.

Most of the major national UK newspapers covered the story, including The Sun, under the headline: “FEELING RUFF Coronavirus passed from dogs put kids in HOSPITAL, study finds” and the Mail Online: “Scientists spot a new type of coronavirus that originated in DOGS and can infect humans”.

Other outlets took a different approach, Yahoo! opted for: “Child contracts a new coronavirus from a dog: Time to worry?” while Indian news site DNA ran the headline: “Study finds new COVID-19 infection from dogs is infecting children – All you need to know”.

The Glasgow Times also referred to the current pandemic-causing coronavirus in their headline “Concern over children catching new Covid strain from pet dogs” while this story was repeated across several Newsquest titles online, including the Harrow Times.

But is this a new coronavirus or a variant, a strain or something else entirely? And should you be worried?

Facts. Checked

The study shows a new coronavirus so Covid-19 should not be mentioned in the headline. It is not a new Covid strain, or Covid infection, it is a new coronavirus in the larger family of coronaviruses, encompassing hundreds of viruses. Research shows this coronavirus can jump from dogs to humans.

Most news outlets correctly reported this, but plenty also linked the story to Covid-19 in their headlines. While the temptation to tie this story to the big issue affecting us all is understandable, the pandemic has underlined the need for clear public health information to be clear and easy to understand.

While errors like the phrasing seen here are slight, they can have larger consequences such as sparking undue fear among dog owners, for example.

What did the researchers find? Scientists took nasal swabs of 301 patients treated in an East Malaysian hospital for pneumonia in 2018.

They found that eight patients, including seven children, was infected with a newly discovered coronavirus that the researchers have named CCoV-HuPn-2018.

All eight patients were treated and released after four to six days in hospital after being given oxygen to help them breathe.

Further study found the coronavirus had jumped from dogs to humans but there has, so far, been no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

And, as most stories reported, there is so far no evidence of this coronavirus leading to a pandemic. However, one of the study’s authors, Anastasia Vlasova Ohio State University assistant professor, said: “I can’t say that’s never going to be a concern in the future.”

Instead Vlasova concluded that the study shows studying animal viruses is key to assessing future threats to human health. While the origins of Covid-19 are still unclear, scientists have long theorised the virus may have originated in animal host, possibly bats.

This study was published on May 20 as Covid restrictions were due to lift in the UK and there was widespread coverage of the so-called Indian variant. That is a strain of Covid-19. Strains are the result of mutations which give the virus different properties that may be advantageous.

Covering a fast-paced public health story like Covid-19 is difficult with information changing very quickly. This case underlines the need to check the information you read with multiple sources, including media outlets and official advice, and also to read beyond the headline.

Worth repeating

The new coronavirus is the eighth known coronavirus that can affect humans

The first coronavirus that affected humans was discovered in 1965 by a team led by virologist David Tyrrell at the Common Cold Unit in Wiltshire

Alongside Covid-19, human coronaviruses include the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Severe acute respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS (Source: WebMD)

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