Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
One day in recent past, scientists at Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab set up a robotic arm inside a circle of five streaming video cameras and let the robot watch itself move, turn and twist. For about three hours the robot did exactly that—it looked at itself this way and that, like toddlers exploring themselves in a room full of mirrors. By the time the robot stopped, its internal neural network finished learning the relationship between the robot’s motor actions and the volume it occupied in its environment. In other words, the robot built a spatial self-awareness, just like humans do. “We trained its deep neural network to understand how it moved in space,” says Boyuan Chen, one of the scientists who worked on it.
For decades robots have been doing helpful tasks that are too hard, too dangerous, or physically impossible for humans to carry out themselves. Robots are ultimately superior to humans in complex calculations, following rules to a tee and repeating the same steps perfectly. But even the biggest successes for human-robot collaborations—those in manufacturing and automotive industries—still require separating the two for safety reasons. Hardwired for a limited set of tasks, industrial robots don't have the intelligence to know where their robo-parts are in space, how fast they’re moving and when they can endanger a human.
Over the past decade or so, humans have begun to expect more from robots. Engineers have been building smarter versions that can avoid obstacles, follow voice commands, respond to human speech and make simple decisions. Some of them proved invaluable in many natural and man-made disasters like earthquakes, forest fires, nuclear accidents and chemical spills. These disaster recovery robots helped clean up dangerous chemicals, looked for survivors in crumbled buildings, and ventured into radioactive areas to assess damage.
Now roboticists are going a step further, training their creations to do even better: understand their own image in space and interact with humans like humans do. Today, there are already robot-teachers like KeeKo, robot-pets like Moffin, robot-babysitters like iPal, and robotic companions for the elderly like Pepper.
But even these reasonably intelligent creations still have huge limitations, some scientists think. “There are niche applications for the current generations of robots,” says professor Anthony Zador at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory—but they are not “generalists” who can do varied tasks all on their own, as they mostly lack the abilities to improvise, make decisions based on a multitude of facts or emotions, and adjust to rapidly changing circumstances. “We don’t have general purpose robots that can interact with the world. We’re ages away from that.”
Robotic spatial self-awareness – the achievement by the team at Columbia – is an important step toward creating more intelligent machines. Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering who runs the Columbia lab, says that future robots will need this ability to assist humans better. Knowing how you look and where in space your parts are, decreases the need for human oversight. It also helps the robot to detect and compensate for damage and keep up with its own wear-and-tear. And it allows robots to realize when something is wrong with them or their parts. “We want our robots to learn and continue to grow their minds and bodies on their own,” Chen says. That’s what Zador wants too—and on a much grander level. “I want a robot who can drive my car, take my dog for a walk and have a conversation with me.”
Columbia scientists have trained a robot to become aware of its own "body," so it can map the right path to touch a ball without running into an obstacle, in this case a square.
Jane Nisselson and Yinuo Qin/ Columbia Engineering
Today’s technological advances are making some of these leaps of progress possible. One of them is the so-called Deep Learning—a method that trains artificial intelligence systems to learn and use information similar to how humans do it. Described as a machine learning method based on neural network architectures with multiple layers of processing units, Deep Learning has been used to successfully teach machines to recognize images, understand speech and even write text.
Trained by Google, one of these language machine learning geniuses, BERT, can finish sentences. Another one called GPT3, designed by San Francisco-based company OpenAI, can write little stories. Yet, both of them still make funny mistakes in their linguistic exercises that even a child wouldn’t. According to a paper published by Stanford’s Center for Research on Foundational Models, BERT seems to not understand the word “not.” When asked to fill in the word after “A robin is a __” it correctly answers “bird.” But try inserting the word “not” into that sentence (“A robin is not a __”) and BERT still completes it the same way. Similarly, in one of its stories, GPT3 wrote that if you mix a spoonful of grape juice into your cranberry juice and drink the concoction, you die. It seems that robots, and artificial intelligence systems in general, are still missing some rudimentary facts of life that humans and animals grasp naturally and effortlessly.
How does one give robots a genome? Zador has an idea. We can’t really equip machines with real biological nucleotide-based genes, but we can mimic the neuronal blueprint those genes create.
It's not exactly the robots’ fault. Compared to humans, and all other organisms that have been around for thousands or millions of years, robots are very new. They are missing out on eons of evolutionary data-building. Animals and humans are born with the ability to do certain things because they are pre-wired in them. Flies know how to fly, fish knows how to swim, cats know how to meow, and babies know how to cry. Yet, flies don’t really learn to fly, fish doesn’t learn to swim, cats don’t learn to meow, and babies don’t learn to cry—they are born able to execute such behaviors because they’re preprogrammed to do so. All that happens thanks to the millions of years of evolutions wired into their respective genomes, which give rise to the brain’s neural networks responsible for these behaviors. Robots are the newbies, missing out on that trove of information, Zador argues.
A neuroscience professor who studies how brain circuitry generates various behaviors, Zador has a different approach to developing the robotic mind. Until their creators figure out a way to imbue the bots with that information, robots will remain quite limited in their abilities. Each model will only be able to do certain things it was programmed to do, but it will never go above and beyond its original code. So Zador argues that we have to start giving robots a genome.
How does one do that? Zador has an idea. We can’t really equip machines with real biological nucleotide-based genes, but we can mimic the neuronal blueprint those genes create. Genomes lay out rules for brain development. Specifically, the genome encodes blueprints for wiring up our nervous system—the details of which neurons are connected, the strength of those connections and other specs that will later hold the information learned throughout life. “Our genomes serve as blueprints for building our nervous system and these blueprints give rise to a human brain, which contains about 100 billion neurons,” Zador says.
If you think what a genome is, he explains, it is essentially a very compact and compressed form of information storage. Conceptually, genomes are similar to CliffsNotes and other study guides. When students read these short summaries, they know about what happened in a book, without actually reading that book. And that’s how we should be designing the next generation of robots if we ever want them to act like humans, Zador says. “We should give them a set of behavioral CliffsNotes, which they can then unwrap into brain-like structures.” Robots that have such brain-like structures will acquire a set of basic rules to generate basic behaviors and use them to learn more complex ones.
Currently Zador is in the process of developing algorithms that function like simple rules that generate such behaviors. “My algorithms would write these CliffsNotes, outlining how to solve a particular problem,” he explains. “And then, the neural networks will use these CliffsNotes to figure out which ones are useful and use them in their behaviors.” That’s how all living beings operate. They use the pre-programmed info from their genetics to adapt to their changing environments and learn what’s necessary to survive and thrive in these settings.
For example, a robot’s neural network could draw from CliffsNotes with “genetic” instructions for how to be aware of its own body or learn to adjust its movements. And other, different sets of CliffsNotes may imbue it with the basics of physical safety or the fundamentals of speech.
At the moment, Zador is working on algorithms that are trying to mimic neuronal blueprints for very simple organisms—such as earthworms, which have only 302 neurons and about 7000 synapses compared to the millions we have. That’s how evolution worked, too—expanding the brains from simple creatures to more complex to the Homo Sapiens. But if it took millions of years to arrive at modern humans, how long would it take scientists to forge a robot with human intelligence? That’s a billion-dollar question. Yet, Zador is optimistic. “My hypotheses is that if you can build simple organisms that can interact with the world, then the higher level functions will not be nearly as challenging as they currently are.”
Since the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade — the landmark decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion — the vulnerabilities of reproductive health data and various other information stored on digital devices or shared through the Web have risen to the forefront.
Menstrual period tracking apps are an example of how technologies that collect information from users could be weaponized against abortions seekers. The apps, which help tens of millions of users in the U.S. predict when they’re ovulating, may provide evidence that leads to criminal prosecution in states with abortion bans, says Anton T. Dahbura, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute. In states where abortion is outlawed, “it’s probably best to not use a period tracker,” he says.
Following the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling in late June that overturned Roe, even women who suffered a miscarriage could be suspected of having an abortion in some cases. While using these apps in anonymous mode may appear more secure, “data is notoriously difficult to perfectly anonymize,” Dahbura says. “Whether the data are stored on the user’s device or in the cloud, there are ways to connect that data to the user.”
Completely concealing one’s tracks in cyberspace poses enormous challenges. Digital forensics can take advantage of technology such as GPS apps, security cameras, license plate trackers, credit card transactions and bank records to reconstruct a person’s activities,” Dahbura says. “Abortion service providers are also in a world of risk for similar reasons.”
Practicing “good cyber hygiene” is essential. That’s particularly true in states where private citizens may be rewarded for reporting on women they suspect of having an abortion, such as Texas, which passed a so-called bounty hunter law last fall. To help guard against hacking, Dahbura suggests using strong passwords and two-factor authentication when possible while remaining on alert for phishing scams on email or texts.
Another option for safeguarding privacy is to avoid such apps entirely, but that choice will depend on an individual’s analysis of the risks and benefits, says Leah Fowler, research assistant professor at the University of Houston Law Center, Health Law & Policy Institute.
“These apps are popular because people find them helpful and convenient, so I hesitate to tell anyone to get rid of something they like without more concrete evidence of its nefarious uses,” she says. “I also hate the idea that asking anyone capable of becoming pregnant to opt out of all or part of the digital economy could ever be a viable solution. That’s an enormous policy failure. We have to do better than that.”
The potential universe of abortion-relevant data can include information from a variety of fitness and other biometric trackers, text and social media chat records, call details, purchase histories and medical insurance records.
Instead, Fowler recommends that concerned consumers read the terms of service and privacy policies of the apps they’re using. If some of the terms are unclear, she suggests emailing customer service with questions until the answers are satisfactory. It’s also wise for consumers to research products that meet their specific needs and find out whether other women have raised concerns about specific apps. Users interested in more privacy may want to switch to an app that stores data locally, meaning the data stays on your device, or does not use third-party tracking, so the app-maker is the only company with access to it, she says.
Period tracking apps can be useful for those on fertility journeys, making it easier to store information digitally than on paper charts. But users may want to factor in whether they live in a state with an anti-abortion stance and run the risk of legal issues due to a potential data breach, says Carmel Shachar, executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.
Consumers’ risks extend beyond period tracking apps in the post-Roe v. Wade era. “Anything that creates digital breadcrumbs to your reproductive choices and conduct could raise concerns — for example, googling ‘abortion providers near me’ or texting your best friend that you are pregnant but do not want to be,” Shachar says. Women also could incriminate themselves by bringing their phones, which may record geolocation data, to the clinic with them.
The potential universe of abortion-relevant data can include information from a variety of fitness and other biometric trackers, text and social media chat records, call details, purchase histories and medical insurance records, says Rebecca Wexler, faculty co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. “These data sources can reveal a pregnant person’s decision to seek or obtain an abortion, as well as reveal a healthcare provider’s provision of abortion services and anyone else’s provision of abortion assistance,” she says.
In some situations, people or companies could inadvertently expose themselves to risk after posting on social media with offers of places for abortion seekers to stay after traveling from states with bans. They could be liable for aiding and abetting abortion. At this point, it’s unclear whether states that ban abortion will try to prosecute residents who seek abortions in other states without bans.
Another possibility is that a woman seeking an abortion will be prosecuted based not only on her phone’s data, but also on the data that law enforcement finds on someone else’s device or a shared computer. As a result, “people in one household may find themselves at odds with each other,” says K Royal, faculty fellow at the Center for Law, Science, and Innovation at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. “This is a very delicate situation.”
Individuals and corporate executives should research their options before leaving a digital footprint. “Guard your privacy carefully, whether you are seeking help or you are seeking to help someone,” Royal says. While she has come across recommendations from other experts who suggest carrying a second phone that is harder to link a person’s identity for certain online activities, “it’s not practical on a general basis.”
The privacy of this health data isn’t fully protected by the law because period trackers, texting services and other apps are not healthcare providers — and as a result, there’s no prohibition on sharing the information with a third party under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, says Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, a professor who specializes in online consumer contracts and data privacy at the NYU School of Law.
“So, as long as there is valid consent, then it’s fair game unless you say that it violates the reasonable expectations of consumers,” she says. “But this is pretty unchartered territory at the moment.”
As states implement laws granting anyone the power to report suspected or known pregnancies to law enforcement, anti-choice activists are purchasing reproductive health data from companies that make period apps, says Rebecca Herold, chief executive officer of Privacy & Security Brainiacs in Des Moines, Iowa, and a member of the Emerging Trends Working Group at ISACA, an association focused on information technology governance. They could also buy data on search histories and make it available in places like Texas for “bounty hunters” to find out which women have searched for information about abortions.
Some groups are creating their own apps described as providing general medical information on subjects such as pregnancy health. But they are “ultimately intended to ‘catch’ women” — to identify those who are probably pregnant and dissuade them from having an abortion, to launch harassment campaigns against them, or to report them to law enforcement, anti-choice groups and others in states where such prenatal medical care procedures are now restricted or prohibited, Herold says.
In addition to privacy concerns, the reversal of Roe v. Wade raises censorship issues. Facebook and Instagram have started to remove or flag content, particularly as it relates to providing the abortion pill, says Michael Kleinman, director of the Silicon Valley Initiative at Amnesty International USA, a global organization that promotes human rights.
Facebook and Instagram have rules that forbid private citizens from buying, selling or giving away pharmaceuticals, including the abortion pill, according to a social media post by a communications director for Meta, which owns both platforms. In the same post, though, the Meta official noted that the company’s enforcement of this rule has been “incorrect” in some cases.
“It’s terrifying to think that arbitrary decisions by these platforms can dramatically limit the ability of people to access critical reproductive rights information,” Kleinman says. However, he adds, “as it currently stands, the platforms make unilateral decisions about what reproductive rights information they allow and what information they take down.”