Animal programs

Asymptomatic animal handlers transmit Covid to lions in South Africa: study

Asymptomatic animal handlers at a private zoo in South Africa transmitted the Delta variant of COVID-19 to captive lions, which were placed in quarantine and developed symptoms including respiratory problems, a runny nose and a dry cough, according to a recent study by a team of scientists. from the University of Pretoria.

The research report, published recently in the journal Viruses’, also urged members of the public to be aware of the possibility of infecting their pet cats and dogs if they have COVID-19.

The team was led by Professor Marietjie Venter, head of the zoonotic, tree and respiratory virus program in the university’s department of medical virology; and Professor Katja Koeppel, Associate Professor of Wildlife Health in the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences. They conducted a study of three sick lions at the zoo during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa in late 2021.

The team of transdisciplinary scientists found that reverse zoonotic transmission of COVID-19 from caretakers of asymptomatic animals at a private zoo in Gauteng (province) posed a risk to big cats kept in captivity, the university said in a statement. a statement.

Transmission of the Delta variant to these animals could lead to more severe disease. Animals tested PCR positive up to seven weeks after falling ill.

This prolonged period of potential virus shedding poses a risk of infection to nearby animals and possibly humans. The animals were therefore placed in quarantine until they tested negative, the scientists said.

Koeppel said the lions had breathing problems as well as runny noses and dry coughs for up to 15 days.

A persistent cough was observed between five and 15 days, with two lions experiencing difficulty in breathing. A lioness developed pneumonia that did not respond to antibiotics, she added.

Staff and lions were monitored over the following weeks for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, and within 15-25 days all three lions made a full recovery.

(Additional) tests have shown that SARS-CoV-2 may have been circulating among staff around the time the lions fell ill, and suggests that those who had direct contact with the animals were likely responsible for the reverse zoonotic transmission , Venter said.

A year earlier, two cougars at the zoo had also tested positive for COVID-19.

Genome sequencing was performed on the humans and three lions, and tests revealed that each of the infections was a Delta variant.

Both cougars and three lions presented with respiratory illness similar to COVID-19 in humans.

The animals did not respond to antibiotic treatment but recovered after treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs and supportive care.

Detection of viral RNA in the upper respiratory tract and faeces, coupled with the fact that pumas and lions showed symptoms, reveals that this virus is able to infect these animals via a natural route of infection, said Sale.

The scientists said the timeline of lion infections by a COVID-positive human is difficult to estimate because all staff members were asymptomatic during the outbreak.

They said reverse zoonotic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by handlers of asymptomatic animals poses a risk to big cats kept in captivity.

The scientists pointed out that precautions such as vaccinating staff, wearing masks when entering cages and preparing food, infection control through the use of disinfectants and distancing barriers for members of the public should be in place in zoos.

This is to protect potentially endangered species from becoming infected and dying, the scientists said.

These measures are also important because of the risk of the appearance of new variants if the virus establishes itself in other animal reservoirs; these variants could be transmitted to humans, they said.

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