UPDATE as of 19 February 2021: All Updates at article end
(original text published 12 May 2020)
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).
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 human positive cases and deaths, 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.
“Seven years ago, a respiratory virus swept through the 56 chimpanzees in the Kanyawara community at Kibale National Park in Uganda, where researchers have studied chimp behavior and society for 33 years. More than 40 apes were sickened; five died. “Chimpanzees looked like limp dolls on the forest floor,” coughing and sneezing and absolutely miserable, recalls disease ecologist Tony Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It was just horrendous.”
The culprit? Rhinovirus C, a human common cold virus, which researchers found after genetically analyzing samples from a dead infant chimp. Goldberg is “100% certain” the virus came from a human—perhaps a tourist, researcher, worker, or villager.” — Science Magazine.
New research, discussed in a recent Leakey Foundation blog, “about how SARS-CoV-2 invades human cells is rapidly emerging and has identified the ACE2 receptor, which is expressed in the lungs and other tissues, as the primary target. Part of the reason the new virus has become so widespread and deadly… To assess the risk to non-human primates, we looked at the ACE2 sequence across species…. We can see that apes and all African and Asian monkeys are identical to humans at all of the binding sites, so they are likely as susceptible to the new virus as humans are.”
We will continue to update this post with 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 19 February 2021:
Tourists could be spreading the virus causing COVID-19 to wild mountain gorillas by taking selfies with the animals
- Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) Considerations pdf 03.20.2020; Calvi, Thalita