COVID-19: Great apes may be vulnerable, say experts

Apes are susceptible to our diseases, said Ian Redmond, a tropical field biologist

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Friday 27 March 2020

Great apes — the closest cousins of humans on the evolutionary tree — are vulnerable to infection from the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), according to experts.

Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, all of whom come under the family of great apes, share 96-99 per cent of their DNA with humans, according to Ian Redmond, the United Nations Environment Program’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals' ambassador for terrestrial species.

“They are susceptible to our diseases,” said Redmond, who is also a tropical field biologist and conservationist.

Wildlife sanctuaries and parks across the world shut tourism-related activities as a precautionary measure, after the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread to 176 countries.

Countries in Africa — including Uganda, Gambia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo — shut their parks and sanctuaries in March 2020.

These parks are inhabited by great apes and are usually a hub of tourist activities.

Gabon — with six confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) — shut tourism in all of its parks and sanctuaries.

“We have decided to stop tourist activities for viewing great apes in our parks to avoid any risk of transmissions between humans and animals,” Christian Tchemambela, chief operating officer of the country's National Agency for National Parks, was quoted as saying in media reports.

Gabon lost over 90 per cent of its gorilla population to an ebola outbreak in 1995.

Ebola — which affects both humans and great apes — led to mortality rates of up to 95 per cent in gorillas, according to Johannes Refisch, programme manager and co-ordinator for the UN’s Great Apes Survival Partnership.

“Calculations indicate some of these populations will need more than 130 years to recover. SARS-CoV-2 will add to these challenges,” he said.

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Indonesia too closed its doors to visitors on March 18.    

The Great Ape Health Consortium urged governments to take steps to prevent the spread of infection to apes, in a letter published on March 24 in journal Nature.

The letter called for the suspension of great ape tourism and a reduction in field research subject to risk assessments to maximise conservation outcomes.

“Such efforts should include ways to offset loss of earnings from tourism, while taking care not to interfere with work to save human lives,” it said.

There should be mechanisms in place to “offset loss of profit and employment from tourism” and to support public health in local communities, according to the International Union for Nature Primate Specialist Group on Great Apes and the Wildlife Health Specialist Group.

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