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Primates also need protection from COVID-19: Calgary-led study

Last Updated Oct 29, 2020 at 2:24 pm MDT

A gorilla rests in its enclosure at the Calgary Zoo. Sunday, May 26th, 2019. (PHOTO: Tom Ross - 660 NEWS)

Many primate populations are already endangered and a spread of COVID-19 could put them in even more danger

Researchers said humans should reconsider interactions with animals in the future to ensure they stay safe

Primates could also be a good candidate for vaccine testing due to them having similar genes as humans

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — While we are focused on keeping ourselves safe from the COVID-19 pandemic, research led by the University of Calgary and done alongside New York University is shining a light on how the virus could affect our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

The study, published in the scientific journal Communications Biology, found that some non-human primates are just as susceptible to the virus as we are and it underscores a need to keep their populations safe.

“The most important thing is that primates are endangered or critically endangered in many places around the world,” Dr. Amanda Melin said, a biological anthropologist at the University of Calgary and lead author on the study. “If humans are experiencing this level of risk — population declines and global shutdowns — it’s important to understand if non-human primates are also at risk.”

The researchers found that apes and monkeys living in Africa and Asia have a similar risk as humans of contracting the virus due to the presence of a viral target receptor in their genes, known as ACE2, which has a similar structure as humans.

Conversely, they found some lemurs have a variable risk to contracting the virus, and primates that do not have the same receptor — such as those living in the Americas — are at much lower risk.

A lemur makes a move in the Land of Lemurs exhibit at the Calgary Zoo. Sunday, May 26th, 2019.

This can be important information because it reinforces the need for humans to take all necessary precautions when they are around the animals, as a spread within the primate communities could be mostly unstoppable.

“In cases where humans need to be maintaining proximity to primates, for their own protection or for critical research or conservation, they should be wearing masks and staying at least six metres away. Basically, the same recommendations we’re making for members of our own species, we should be applying that to our interactions with non-human primates,” Melin said.

“You cannot explain to chimpanzees they need to stop grooming each other or spending time sleeping together with the mothers and the babies, so once it (spreads) in the populations it becomes really difficult.”

It might be easier to manage spread in a zoo population, as there also have been other reported cases of zoo animals contracting the virus, but in the wild it could grow to an untenable situation.

“Many parks containing wild primates, and care facilities with captive primates, have already taken measures to limit the exposure of primates to humans at this time,” added anthropologist Dr. James Higham of New York University, a co-author of the paper.

It could present long-term issues in terms of the human economy as well if there was an unfortunate spread of the virus, due to the popularity of tourists seeing the animals in the wild.

“One example would be the mountain gorilla ecotourism at Bwindi in Uganda, which is critical to the local economy,” Higham said. “The longer that tourism and other tangible benefits are restricted, the more issues related to local livelihoods and the long-term sustainability of primate conservation efforts may come to the fore.”

But this research could also pose something positive as we look for more information on how to tackle the virus. Due to similar gene structures, primates could be good candidates for vaccine testing.

Usually scientists will use mice for this type of work, but Melin said they are not the best candidates for this type of work because they would need to be injected with a human form of the ACE2 receptor gene to make it applicable.

“Some non-human primates, like rhesus macaque monkeys, have the same ACE2 receptor as us at those critical sites, and they are also a very biomedically important model for disease research in humans,” Melin said. “Those monkeys have a very similar reaction as humans do to this virus, and so we can use that to learn about the efficacy of different vaccine candidates.”

That said, it may be a bit premature to consider vaccinating primates in order to keep them safe in the future.

“I think there are some serious ethical concerns and logistical difficulties with vaccinating wild animals. It may be a case where that’s decided to be a good solution for captive primates in zoos or other colonies,” Melin said.

The pandemic has changed so many different aspects of life, and since we have started to learn how to function without going out of the house as often or cutting back on some luxuries, Melin said this could also be a moment of reflection for humans and how we can take a greater role in protecting the world around us.

“There’s no doubt about that,” she said. “I think that, not just with this study but with the global pandemic overall, it’s a good opportunity for people to be reconsidering their interactions with animals.”