A recent commentary, penned by a group of conservation and primate experts, asks the international community to take action to protect the great apes from potential SARS-CoV-2 infection.

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Could COVID-19 impact great apes communities?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has touched almost every corner of the globe. Authorities are battling to slow its spread, and human health has rarely been more acutely in the spotlight.

Some scientists, meanwhile, are asking whether this novel virus might impact nonhuman animals, too.

Experts believe that SARS-CoV-2 originated in animals and passed to humans. Most researchers now believe that it began in bats, then passed into pangolins before infecting humans.

However, it is not clear whether this virus might move from humans into other animals, in a process is called reverse zoonosis.

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Scientists have already shown that great apes are susceptible to human respiratory infections, such as human rhinovirus C, one virus that can cause the common cold.

Because many apes in this group, which includes chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas, are already endangered, experts are concerned that COVID-19 could devastate populations.

Authored by 25 scientists, a recent commentary published in Nature raises the alarm.

One of the authors, Thomas Gillespie, Ph.D., a disease ecologist at Emory University, in Atlanta, GA, explains that the COVID-19 pandemic is “a potentially dire situation for great apes. There is a lot at stake for those in danger of extinction.”

To date, scientists do not know exactly how apes will respond to SARS-CoV-2, as the authors outline:

“It is unknown whether the morbidity and mortality associated with SARS-CoV-2 in humans are similar in apes. However, transmission of even mild human pathogens to apes can lead to moderate-to-severe outcomes.”

The authors reference an outbreak of a different coronavirus in 2016. This particular virus, known as OC43, impacted a group of wild chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa. Over a 2-month period, nine individuals in a group of 33 chimpanzees demonstrated symptoms, such as coughing and sneezing.

Similarly, in 2013, there was a lethal outbreak of human rhinovirus C among wild chimpanzees in Uganda. Throughout the year-long outbreak, most became sick, and five of the 56 chimpanzees died.

As the authors acknowledge, great ape tourism has declined steeply as COVID-19 has progressed, and some countries have already suspended this type of activity.

However, the authors believe that more should be done to safeguard these at-risk animals; they write:

“We urge governments, conservation practitioners, researchers, tourism professionals, and funding agencies to reduce the risk of introducing the virus into these endangered apes. They can do this by applying the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s best-practice guidelines for health monitoring and disease control in great ape populations.”

The authors also suggest that those involved should carry out risk assessments: There is a concern that if these animals are left without guardians, poaching could increase significantly.

“Essential staff need to remain in place,” says Gillespie. “But we need to make sure that staff numbers are low and that they are engaged in proper processes to protect themselves, and the apes, from exposure to COVID-19.”

Some people with SARS-CoV-2 infections experience mild or no symptoms. These people, Gillespie explains, “are more apt to be hiking into the national parks of Africa and Asia to see great apes in the wild.” He continues, “It would be extremely difficult to monitor whether they were infected with COVID-19, since they may not have obvious symptoms.”

In a press release from Emory University, the authors write, “As professionals working with great apes, we bear a responsibility to protect them from our pathogens. We hope for the best but should prepare for the worst and critically consider the impact of our activities on these endangered species.”

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