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Here is what preliminary data says about COVID-19 transmission between humans and pets.

USA TODAY

A deadly virus is spreading across the southwestern United States and killing wild rabbits on this continent for the first time, wildlife officials say.

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease virus type 2 can cause swelling, internal bleeding and liver damage in rabbits, hares, jackrabbits and pikas, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

The symptoms can appear so rapidly that infected rabbits may die before they’re found. Rabbits that have died from the disease may have blood on their mouth or nose.

“It’s going to affect the entire food chain. Everything that feeds on rabbits is going to be affected to some degree,” said Ralph Zimmerman, the state veterinarian for New Mexico where the disease first emerged in March.

The disease has killed “thousands” of rabbits in New Mexico alone, according to Zimmerman.

“I’ve had reports of hundreds of dead rabbits,” he said. “One of the Game and Fish folks estimated that it would be in the tens of thousands by the time it was done moving through the state.”

The highly contagious disease spreads only between rabbits and is not known to affect humans, livestock or other kinds of pets. Wildlife officials are emphasizing that it is not related to coronavirus though there are some parallels.

The virus is spread through contact with infected rabbits, their meat or fur, contaminated food or water or insects and scavengers that have come into contact with infectious material, according to the National Wildlife Health Center.

The hardy virus can remain stable in the environment for up to 15 weeks in dry conditions and can survive freezing.

This virus is a new strain of a disease that first emerged in China in 1984, according to a study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Virology. The new type of virus, RHDV2, was first detected in France in 2010 and has since killed wild rabbits across Europe. It spread through Australia in 18 months.

In the United States, the disease first killed wild rabbits in New Mexico then spread to Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and California according to data from the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Zimmerman said it’s unclear how exactly the virus got here, but one theory is that it was brought here by someone who was transporting imported rabbits. 

There is no license for a vaccine in this country, Zimmerman said, but New Mexico was able to get a shipment from France. The state plans to vaccinate survivors in the domestic population, which are also at risk, but Zimmerman said “there’s really not much we can do as far as vaccinating the wild rabbits.”

Zimmerman said he is concerned the disease may become endemic and never completely disappear. He advised pet owners to be cautious about where they’re going and take “basic biosecurity” measures like taking off your shoes before you enter the house to prevent introducing the virus to domestic animals. 

“It’s still moving out of control at this point because of the wild rabbit involvement,” he said. “The best thing everybody can do is stay home, keep their rabbits at home.”

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

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