In DepthCOVID 19

Ape researchers mobilize to save primates from coronavirus

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Science  08 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6491, pp. 566
DOI: 10.1126/science.368.6491.566-a

Science's COVID-19 coverage is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Seven years ago, a respiratory virus swept through 56 chimpanzees in a community at Kibale National Park in Uganda, where researchers have studied chimp behavior for 33 years. More than 40 apes were sickened; five died. “Chimpanzees looked like limp dolls on the forest floor,” recalls disease ecologist Tony Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It was just horrendous.”

The culprit? Rhinovirus C, a human common cold virus, according to samples from a dead infant chimp. Goldberg is “100% certain” the virus came from a human, perhaps a tourist, researcher, or villager.

Human respiratory viruses are already the leading cause of death in chimp communities at Kibale and at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, where Jane Goodall worked, according to a study led by Goldberg. Now, researchers are gearing up to protect apes as well as local people from COVID-19. Last week, hundreds of researchers, conservationists, and veterinarians gathered virtually to share strategies in back-to-back webinars held by the Ape Alliance and the African Primatological Society. They are already cordoning off preserves, working with locals to reduce contact with apes, and wearing masks in the forest.

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Six-year-old Amina, in Uganda, lost her mother to a respiratory virus.


The ape form of the receptor that the new coronavirus uses to enter cells (the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2, receptor) is identical to the human one, so it's likely apes can be infected, according to an 11 April preprint on bioRxiv. If the virus gets into ape communities, flattening the curve will be all but impossible. “Gorillas can't social distance,” says primatologist Tara Stoinski at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

The virus would hit already depleted populations. Among chimps at Taï National Park in Côte d'Ivoire, researchers have detected repeated outbreaks of viruses and strep since 1999. Each time a respiratory virus swept through, about one-quarter of the chimps died, says primatologist Roman Wittig of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Those deaths, plus poaching and habitat loss, have shrunk the Taï forest chimp population from 3000 in 1999 to 300–400 today, he says.

Among mountain gorillas, respiratory viruses cause up to 20% of sudden deaths, according to a February report in Frontiers in Public Health. Half the world's 1063 mountain gorillas live at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, where 40,000 tourists visit every year. The February study found that more than 98% of the observed tourist groups got closer to the gorillas than the mandated 7 meters, and that sick tourists tried to hide their illnesses, Bwindi veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka said in a webinar.

African governments have already stopped all ape-related tourism. At Bwindi, Kalema-Zikusoka trained 130 Ugandan Wildlife Authority rangers on how to keep coronavirus from gorillas and monitor the apes for illness. At Taï and Kibale, researchers who observe the apes quarantine for up to 14 days, wear masks, and keep their distance, among other actions. And researchers at Taï can send chimps' feces to be tested for COVID-19.

To keep people out of the forest and reduce hunting, some researchers are offering goats to local people or helping farmers grow cash crops like coffee. In Lomami National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, researchers had to chase a female bonobo to train her to stay out of a village, primatologist Jo Thompson, director of the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project in the DRC, said in a webinar.

If apes do sicken and become too weak to climb into their sleeping nests in trees, researchers may sleep nearby to protect them from leopards or poachers, Wittig says. But there are no plans to treat sick animals.

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