What we know about SARS-CoV-2 in pigs hasn’t changed a lot since the first version of this post. It’s still a fairly “good news” situation, but one that could also use some more investigation.
Are pigs susceptible to SARS-CoV-2?
Kind of, but not really. There are somewhat conflicting experimental data, but the debate is really whether pigs have very little vs no susceptibility to the virus. There is obviously a difference between “no” and “yes, but only a little,” but from a big picture standpoint, we don’t currently have evidence that there are issues for pig health, pigs as a source of infection in people, or pigs as a potential reservoir for emergence of new virus variants.
Why did we talk a lot about pigs initially?
At the start of the pandemic, we were worried about the potential for this virus to infect pigs because of their susceptibility to the original SARS virus, and because it was predicted that they would be quite susceptible based on their ACE2 receptor. ACE2 is the receptor that the virus uses to enter the cells of the host. If the virus can’t enter cells, it can’t infect them. Different animals have slightly different ACE2 receptors on their cells, and the pig ACE2 receptor is quite similar to the human ACE2 receptor, suggesting there could be similar susceptibility in both species. Looking at ACE2 receptors has been interesting, but we’ve seen that it doesn’t always link up with what actually happens, as was the case in pigs.
Trying to grow the virus in cell lines from an animal species can provide some additional information about potential susceptibility. In one study, the SARS-CoV-2 virus was grown in 2/3 pig cell types, but did not damage those cells. In another study, the virus grew in the pig cells and caused some cell damage. Similar results were reported in another cell line study.
These all contributed to the concerns about the susceptibility of pigs; however, there are limitations to what in vitro studies can tell us. To get the real story, we need to look at actual pigs. So far, all the information we have about the virus is live pigs is from a couple of experimental studies.
So, are pigs susceptible to SARS-CoV-2?
In one study, 5 pigs were experimentally infected and mixed with 3 other pigs. In another study, 9 pigs were infected and then mixed with 3 other pigs. A third study infected 9 pigs and added 6 uninfected pigs.
- Nothing remarkable happened in any of these studies. None of the pigs got sick, and all samples collected were negative for the virus. Antibodies against the virus weren’t found in any of the pigs. This all indicated that the pigs were not infected, and there was a big sigh of relief as it appeared that concerns about pigs were unnecessary.
In yet another study, pigs were exposed to the virus via the nose, the trachea and by injection. All the pigs stayed healthy and the virus wasn’t detected in any samples from the pigs, but antibodies against the virus were found in pigs that were injected with the virus. That shows the body responded to the virus, but since it was injected, it’s not really relevant to the natural situation.
However, leave it to Canadians to be disruptive – another experimental study in pigs changed the story a little bit. It didn’t raise major concerns, but it suggested things are not quite as clear cut as we’d hoped.
- In the Canadian study, 16 pigs were exposed to a higher dose of the virus, and nothing remarkable happened. Some developed mild discharge from the eyes for a few days. One had a slight cough and was mildly depressed for a few days.
- Low levels of virus were detected by PCR in respiratory samples from two of the sixteen pigs, but live virus could not be isolated.
- The virus was isolated from a lymph node of one pig, and antibodies were detected in the blood of two pigs, supporting some level of true infection.
- Two pigs were added to the exposed pigs 10 days after inoculation, and they didn’t become infected.
- So, this study showed some degree of susceptibility in pigs, but with infrequent mild disease and no evidence that pigs are infected to the degree that they would be able to pass on the virus to another animal (or person).
Another similar study involving inoculation of pigs with SARS-CoV-2 by different routes (blood, trachea, nose) also found none of the pigs got sick. Viral RNA was detected from oral, nasal or rectal swabs by PCR in some inoculated pigs, but virus wasn’t isolated and transmission to in-contact pigs wasn’t observed. These two studies are still consistent with a “don’t worry” narrative – if there was human-to-pig transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the pig would not likely get sick and would not likely be able infect other pigs or people.
Have any pigs outside of a lab been infected with SARS-CoV-2?
There are no reports of any naturally infected pigs, but I’m also not aware of any actual testing of pigs on farms. (“We don’t think there’s anything to investigate” is often stated with an unspoken “we don’t really want to know.”)
Field data are always useful because experimental studies don’t tell the full story. So, some data about pigs exposed to infected farmers would be useful to have, to round out the story. There have to have been large numbers of pigs exposed to infected people, especially on some large farms in areas where COVID-19 has run rampant. The fact that we haven’t heard rumblings of problems is good. However, without formal surveillance, it only tells us we don’t have evidence of a significant pig health issue. We can’t rule out the potential that pigs get infected but don’t get sick. That’s why we really should have more active surveillance, looking at pigs that have potentially been exposed.
What’s the recommendation when it comes to SARS-CoV-2 and pigs?
The same as for other animal species. If we keep infected people away from animals, we don’t need to worry about human-to-animal transmission, or any subsequent animal health or animal-to-human transmission issues. While the odds of someone infecting a pig are very low, it’s best to avoid exposing pigs to infected people whenever possible. That may not be an option on small farms run by one person or a family, but the more we can keep infected people away from animals (of all kinds), the better.
What about new variants of SARS-CoV-2 in pigs?
That’s the wild card for all our animal discussions. Experimental studies were done early in the pandemic and used the original strain of the virus. The SARS-CoV-2 strains we’re seeing now are quite different, at least in humans. Odds are low that delta or other variants would be much more able to infect pigs, but we simply don’t know. As we see new variants, we need to realize that what we know from earlier work isn’t necessarily still the case. It’s another reason ongoing surveillance would be good, but I won’t hold my breath on that.