PREPRINT: SARS-CoV-2, a threat to marine mammals? A study from Italian seawaters

Zoonotically transmitted coronaviruses were responsible for three disease outbreaks since 2002, with the “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2” (SARS-CoV-2) causing the dramatic “Coronavirus Disease-2019” (CoViD-19) pandemic, which affected public health, economy, and society on a global scale. The impacts of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic permeate into our environment and wildlife as well; in particular, concern has been raised about the viral occurrence and persistence in aquatic and marine ecosystems. The discharge of untreated wastewaters carrying infectious SARS-CoV-2 into natural water systems that are home of sea mammals may have dramatic consequences on vulnerable species.

The efficient transmission of coronaviruses raise questions regarding the contributions of virus-receptors interactions. The main receptor of SARS-CoV-2 is Angiotensin Converting Enzyme-2 (ACE-2), serving as a functional receptor for the viral spike (S) protein. This study was aimed, through the comparative analysis of the ACE-2 receptor with the human one, at assessing the susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 of the different species of marine mammals living in Italian waters. We also determined, by means of immunohistochemistry, ACE-2 receptor localization in the lung tissue from different cetacean species, in order to provide a preliminary characterization of ACE-.2 expression in the marine mammals’ respiratory tract.

Furthermore, in order to evaluate if and how wastewater management in Italy may lead to susceptible marine mammal populations being exposed to the virus, geo-mapping data of wastewater plants, associated to the identification of specific stretches of coast more exposed to extreme weather events, overlapped to marine mammal population data, were carried out. Results showed the SARS-CoV-2 exposure for marine mammals inhabiting Italian coastal waters. Thus, we highlight the potential hazard of reverse zoonotic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection, along with its impact on marine mammals regularly inhabiting the Mediterranean Sea, whilst also stressing the need of appropriate action to prevent further damage to specific vulnerable populations.

Significance Statement Growing concern exists that SARS-CoV-2, as already ascertained for its SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV “predecessors”, originated from an animal “reservoir”, performing thereafter its spillover into mankind, that was possibly anticipated by viral “passage” into a secondary animal host. Within the dramatic SARS-CoV-2 pandemic context, hitherto characterized by over 110 million cases and almost 2,500,000 deaths on a global scale, several domestic and wild animal species have been reported as susceptible to natural and/or experimental SARS-CoV-2 infection. In this respect, while some marine mammal species are deemed as potentially susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection on the basis of the sequence homology of their ACE-2 viral receptor with the human one, this study addresses such a critical issue also in stranded sea mammal specimens.

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