The “Montreal whale” and COVID-19

The humpback whale is dead. Probably the result of a collision with a ship. She could also have caught the coronavirus in the port of Montreal or along the St. Lawrence.

A team of researchers from the University of California at Davis has established that marine mammals, including whales and belugas, are vulnerable to viruses of this type.

Studies have revealed the presence of fragments of the coronavirus in the sanitation systems of European cities. Researchers have also examined sewage in Boston to predict the number of coronavirus cases. This should therefore be the case for the communities that, affected by COVID-19, discharge their wastewater into the St. Lawrence, whose health record is not very encouraging.

Marine mammals are contaminated with various types of coronavirus. In 2000, seal corpses infected with a respiratory coronavirus were found along the California coast. Traces of viruses from this family have also been found in seals and belugas in captivity. In 2008, a necropsy revealed that a coronavirus had damaged the liver of a beluga in captivity in a water park. Researchers are concerned that belugas are at high risk for infection with the new coronavirus.

If whales, including belugas, are sensitive to SARS-CoV-2, this could affect the subsistence hunting of Arctic Inuit, given the danger of spreading the virus to Inuit hunters and their families who eat the whales. The coronavirus pandemic could also change the way researchers interact with marine mammals. Will scientists working with marine mammals need to take extra care when conducting their research?

For now, “there is no data on the possible susceptibility of marine mammals to the virus [responsable de la COVID-19]”, Emphasizes, on the site” Whales live “, the Dr Stéphane Lair, full professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Montreal. However, terrestrial mammals are vulnerable to it. Dogs and cats, but also tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, have caught the coronavirus.

Thanks to their living environment and the spacing already imposed on humans frequenting their environment (100 meters), the marine mammals of the St. Lawrence seem fairly well protected from potential contamination: “It is impossible to say that the risks are from zero, but they’re probably very small, ”says Dr The air

Marie-Ève ​​Muller, editor-in-chief of “Whales Online”, the information site of the Research and Education Group on Marine Mammals (GREMM), confirms to me in an email that viruses still pose risks to whale populations. The Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Network recommends more than ever to keep its distance from marine mammals, including seals on beaches.

For Marie-Ève ​​Muller, whales could also be positively affected. Indeed, the slowdown in human activities and the decrease in maritime traffic could in fact improve the living conditions of marine mammals.

Two whales were also sighted off Marseille this spring. This exceptional presence has been attributed to the containment linked to the pandemic: less traffic at sea, less noisy pleasure boats.

It opens up new spaces for marine mammals, with the risks that this entails, as we see with “the Montreal whale”.

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