Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021
Coronavirus affects animals too, and, as part of its world-wide presence, this concerns us. Now it’s been found in gorillas at the San Diego Zoo. It started with symptoms–a cough and congestion–followed by a positive test for SARS-CoV-2 in fecal samples confirmed the diagnosis. They may have contracted it from an asymptomatic caregiver, even though staff member are required to wear PPE when caring for the primates. The gorillas have been quarantined together and are doing well. It’s the first case of COVID transmission from a human to a primate.
But it’s not the first case of COVID-19 in zoo animals. Lions and tigers seem especially susceptible. Back in April, a four-year-old Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive after showing respiratory symptoms. She was followed by three other tigers and three African lions. Then three tigers tested positive at the zoo in Knoxville, Tennessee after experiencing lethargy, coughing, and loss of appetite. In December, 2020, four lions tested positive at the Barcelona Zoo in Spain. Around the same time, three snow leopards at the Louisville Zoo tested positive for COVID after showing respiratory symptoms (see https://zahp.aza.org/). All the big cats recovered.
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is an opportunist that thrives in mammals, spreading from bats, which served as a reservoir host, to another wild mammal, possibly the pangolin, before spreading to humans which, biologically speaking, are just another mammalian host to the virus. [See Pandemic Days 80-83: Animal Origins. https://historysedge.wordpress.com/2020/06/01/pandemic-journal-days-80-83/ .] It’s not surprising that some animals are now catching the virus from humans. This virus spreads like a weed whenever it lands on fertile ground. Each leap to a different species requires a sustainable pattern of mutations that can multiply and spread in the new host population. As we know, the virus is also capable of forming sustainable patterns of mutations which enable it to spread more readily in the human population, but that is a topic for another day.
Some animals furnish particularly fertile ground for this viral weed. For example, minks. Like lions and tigers and apes in the zoo, farmed minks are wild animals which are dependent on human care. Like the zookeepers, mink farmers have a vested interest in keeping their animals healthy and disease-free. In both cases, the animals contracted COVID from their human caretakers.
The concern with the mink farms (and the reason the minks were all killed in Denmark,) was the discovery that some humans contracted the mutated virus back from the mink. But the risk is greater if the virus spreads to wild animals. Just a few weeks ago a the recapture of a escaped mink with COVID from an Oregon mink farm raised questions of the possible spread of the virus in the wild animal population. Then an infected wild (feral, not farmed) mink was captured in a survey of wild animals around mink farms in Utah. The danger to us is that wild mink and related mammals may become a natural reservoir host for COVID in our own environment.
Fortunately, several organizations are monitoring the coronavirus spread from humans to animals, both wild and domestic. Cases of COVID in animals in the United States are reportable to and are tracked by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). So far fewer than 150 have been identified. A map and itemized chart of each case can be found at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/one_health/downloads/sars-cov2-in-animals.pdf.
The USDA funds The ZAHP Fusion Center which monitors and communicates information between the managed wildlife community and federal agencies and emergency responders. ZAHP’s long name is: “the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Preparedness, Response and Recovery (ZAHP) Fusion Center. See https://zahp.aza.org/. ZAHP bridges the USDA with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an independent accrediting organization for institutions around the world. Through this system, information about COVID-19 in animals is collected, monitored, and communicated to health organizations.
Transmission of viruses from animals to humans is serious business. ZHAP was founded in 2005 as a response to the H5N1 Influenza strain in Southeast Asia. This influenza virus strain, which was highly communicable in birds, was feared because it had a high mortality rate in people who were in contact with sick birds, specifically chickens. When 6 out of 18 people dies of H5N1 flu after working with chickens in Hong Kong, 1.5 million chickens, all the chickens in Hong Kong, were destroyed. (Spillover, p. 182). At the time, this particular flu did not spread from person to person.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) collects information and coordinates studies on COVID-19 in animals and the implications for spread among humans. Its section on COVID-19 and animals states that so far there is no evidence that animal transmission is a significant source of COVID in humans. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/animals.html)
That’s good news. And I’m glad they’re checking.
Today’s Notable Headlines
“Gorilla Troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park Test Positive for COVID-19,” San Diego Zoo Global ZooNooz, Jan. 11, 2021. https://zoonooz.sandiegozoo.org/2021/01/11/gorilla-troop-at-the-san-diego-zoo-safari-park-test-positive-for-covid-19/
“Mink infected with the coronavirus escapes Oregon fur farm,” OPB, Dec. 29, 2020. https://www.opb.org/article/2020/12/29/coronavirus-mink-oregon/
“Here’s why Denmark culled 17 million minks and now plans to dig up their buried bodies. The Covid mink crisis, explained,” NBC News, Dec. 1, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/animal-news/here-s-why-denmark-culled-17-million-minks-now-plans-n1249610
San Diego Zoo Press Release, Jan. 11, 2021: https://zoo.sandiegozoo.org/pressroom/news-releases/gorilla-troop-san-diego-zoo-safari-park-test-positive-covid-19?utm_source=Sailthru%20Email&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=newsAlerts&utm_term=coronavirus&utm_content=2021-01-12&apid=36911271&rvid=fa7c2c38d4d1e41b83e8016b052dc63c6d6ff4a940cbaa533edc93e1a81aab24
“Update: Bronx Zoo Tigers and Lions Recovering from COVID-19,” WCSNewsroom, April 22, 2020. https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/14084/Update-Bronx-Zoo-Tigers-and-Lions-Recovering-from-COVID-19.aspx
“Coronavirus: Four lions test positive for Covid-19 at Barcelona Zoo,” BBC News, Dec. 8, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55229433
“Tiger at Tennessee zoo tests positive for coronavirus,” AP, Oct. 30, 2020. https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-animals-tigers-knoxville-tennessee-e111137332393c058868672aaee4bfe6
“Considerations for the Management of Non-Domestic Species in Human Care During COVID-19,” ZAHP, Updated Dec. 18, 2020. https://zahp.aza.org/covid-19-animal-care/
Spillover, David Quammen, WW Norton & Co, 2012.
“COVID-19 and Animals,” CDC, updated Jan. 15, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/animals.html
Why am I doing this?
The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. I intend to journal the pandemic experience from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, as a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an estraordinary world crisis.
You are on History’s Edge.