Are chimpanzees at risk of COVID-19?
Written By: Matt Brunette, JGI Canada Volunteer
Category: Great Apes
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to effect millions across the globe, the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada (JGI) is making it our priority to ensure that everyone in the JGI family, and all the people and animals involved in our programs, are as protected from its impacts as possible. Not only is the outbreak of the novel coronavirus a human health issue, but the emergence of the disease from exotic animal markets is indicative of larger underlying environmental issues. This pandemic has been an important reminder of the close link between humans, wildlife, and the environment.
The COVID-19 virus strain, SARs-COV-2, is part of a large family of coronavirus that are known to impact both humans and animals. Other notable coronaviruses that have caused disease in humans are SARs and MERs. This virus is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it is transferred to humans through a “spillover” from an animal host species. Once the disease establishes itself in humans it can become highly infectious.
Understanding the source and cause of the “spillover” is important from a global health perspective for managing the spread of the disease and preventing future outbreaks. The COVID-19 virus has been found to share 96% of its structure with coronavirus from bats along with crucial amino acids from Malaysian pangolins that help the virus bind to human ACE2 receptor proteins in cell membranes. Humans and non-human primates have almost identical ACE2 proteins in their cells, presenting a concern to scientists and conservationists that the current coronavirus pandemic may be just as harmful to primates.
Diseases represent one of the main threats to non-human primates after habitat loss and hunting. Over the past 60 years, great ape populations across Africa have experienced fatal epidemics of common human borne diseases such as the human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV), the human metapneumovirus (HMPV) and human rhinovirus C. While there is yet to be a confirmed case of COVID-19 in wild primates, their close relation to humans is a serious cause for concern.
Previous studies have shown that chimpanzees can contract the common cold virus from humans, while the Ebola virus is thought to have killed thousands of chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa. A previous study in Kibale National Park in Uganda found that the transfer of rhinovirus C, a common human cold, killed 56 chimpanzees. In Tai National Park, Cote d’Ivoire, researchers have detected repeated outbreaks of viruses and strep since 1999, including a human coronavirus in 2017 among chimpanzees. These studies also show that even pathogens producing mild symptoms in people can be very lethal in great apes.
To protect wild primates from the transfer of COVID-19, national parks across Africa have already stopped tourist activities and limited researcher access to primate populations. As tourism is put on hold, primates are safer but much needed sources of conservation funds have dried up, creating challenges for protecting wildlife and their habitat. Limiting the access of researchers and park rangers in some national parks has also raised concerns among conservationists that poaching levels may be rising.
At our project sites across Africa, JGI is currently facing tremendous challenges and unknowns. Access to supplies for the chimpanzees in our care is extremely limited and providing fresh and healthy food for rescued chimpanzees is a huge extra cost for already limited budgets. At the same time, we are taking every precaution possible and developing innovative solutions to protect chimpanzees, support human communities and guide staff. This crisis is a forceful reminder of just how interconnected we are with the environment. It is vital that we address issues of global biodiversity loss and habitat destruction to protect global health, both environmental and human.
At Tchimpounga, JGI has taken several measures to ensure the safety of staff, animals, and surrounding communities. Since the end of March, sanctuary staff have been working onsite in fixed fifteen-day rotations, with staff strictly limited to specific zones within the interior of the sanctuary and per island. A daily body temperature and general health check point has been established at each site to monitor the health of all employees, as well as periodic temperature checks throughout the day. Facial masks are also required for all staff working within 10 metres of the chimpanzees. Entry to the sanctuary has been restricted, with fruit deliveries left at the exterior of the quarantine zone where it is first disinfected before being transported to the kitchens by a specifically designated vehicle. The fruit goes through further disinfections before preparation and distribution. Meanwhile, we’re working with nearby villages and arranging community sensitization meetings to raise awareness on how people can protect themselves.
As the COVID-19 crisis is demonstrating across the globe, together we are stronger and capable of overcoming the many challenges that we face. Any support to our efforts is essential to continue to protect chimpanzees and the communities surrounding them during this pandemic.