Key to our Apes Like Us program is exploring the impact of threats to all great apes; disease is one of the greatest of those threats. In the past two decades multiple accounts of ape deaths due to disease have raised alarm amongst scientist. Rarely does that threat become a global pandemic, in 2020 it has. At this point, no non-human ape has been infected or died but it is safest to assume that great apes are susceptible to SARS CoV-2 infection. Here’s what we know (ongoing updates added at article end: UPDATE as of 27 March 2020).
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency. This new coronavirus (known as SARS CoV-2 virus) and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, affects humans, but can potentially affect all other great apes. On March 11, 2020 it was declared a pandemic. Many countries and territories around the world have since reported cases, including those across Equatorial Africa and the Indomalaya islands of Borneo and Sumatra, regions of the other four populations of great apes — gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and orangutans.
The risk to our closest cousins is enormous. Already, two-thirds of human infectious diseases have been found to originate from wildlife (called Zoonosis), including the deadly Ebola, other SARS, MERS and now COVID-19. Most of the human diseases also affect non-human animals.
The corona viruses responsible for SARS, MERS and now SARS-CoV-2 (the corona virus that causes COVID-19) have dramatically altered the pathogenicity and threat to human populations of this family of coronaviruses. Currently, there is no data supporting host-specific CoVs in great apes and other primates, but there is a published report on anthroponotic transmission of HCoV-OC43 (the corona virus that causes the “common cold” in humans) resulting in respiratory disease in chimpanzees.(1)
The World Health Organization was first alerted to several cases of pneumonia in people in the city of Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019. A novel coronavirus (temporarily named 2019-nCoV) was confirmed as the cause on January 7, 2020.
Since so little is known about the pathogenicity of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to great apes, the prevention of any potential pathogen spread between humans and non-human great apes is critical. Furthermore, there is abundant scientific evidence that great apes are susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. As a cautionary measure great ape sanctuaries, national parks and conservation areas across Africa and Asia have closed or are closing to visitors.
Mountain Gorilla Vulnerability & Disease Transmission
Approximately 60% of the 1,063 mountain gorillas in the world are habituated to the presence of people (park personnel, tourists, researchers, veterinarians, etc.) to facilitate conservation, tourism, and research. These gorillas are in daily close proximity with people and are therefore uniquely at risk for contracting human pathogens.
It is currently unknown if great apes are susceptible to the SARS CoV-2 virus. However, great apes, including gorillas, are known to be susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. In 2009, human metapneumovirus (HMPV) contributed to the death of two mountain gorillas during a severe outbreak of respiratory illness.2 This virus and others have also caused illness and death in wild chimpanzees.
We will continue to update this post any and all related information regarding SARS CoV-2 virus (Covid-19). For ongoing information follow us on our Facebook page and Instagram feed — follow the latest there.
— Gerry Ellis, GLOBIO Exec. Director
UPDATES as of 27 March 2020:
- Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) Considerations pdf 03.20.2020 Calvi, Thalita