Coronavirus-infected chimps could be silent super spreaders, according to worrying research which details potentially devastating consequences for the world's endangered great apes.
The deepening pandemic may spell ruin for populations of man's nearest relative, the chimpanzee, while gorillas and orangutangs are also at risk of seeing their numbers decimated.
That is because great apes share 98% of human DNA and have long been deemed susceptible to human viruses, such as the common cold.
And the fear is humans will pass on the virus to chimps – which will have a devastating knock-on effect.
In 2016 chimps in the Taï National Park in Africa's Ivory Coast were found to have contacted a variant of the coronavirus.
Now, leading scientists says humans could easily have passed the virus on to apes, who could become silent spreaders among their own families.
Now leading wildlife groups say it is highly likely ape populations, have or could pick up Covid-19, the current strain of pandemic-causing coronavirus.
A joint statement by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Wildlife Health Specialist Group and the Primate Specialist Group says: "There is abundant scientific evidence that great apes are susceptible to infection with human respiratory pathogens. At this point, it is safest to assume that great apes are susceptible to SARS CoV-2 (Covid-19) infection."
They are now asking for humans to maintain a 10 metre distance from all apes, and for no one who is ill from coronavirus, or been around someone who is infected, to visit sanctuaries.
Writing in the journal Nature lead researcher Thomas Gillespie, from from Emory University in the US state of Georgia, said: “It’s a potentially dire situation for great apes. There is a lot at stake for those in danger of extinction.”
He, alongside co-author Fabian Lenndertz, are calling on tourism to be limited to conservation areas because "transmission of even mild human pathogens to apes can lead to moderate-to-severe outcomes."
He said: “People who are younger, who may be less at risk for severe illness from Covid-19, are the ones who are more likely to be hiking into the national parks of Africa and Asia to see great apes in the wild.
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"It would be extremely difficult to monitor whether they were infected with Covid-19 since they may not have obvious symptoms.”
"We hope for the best but should prepare for the worst and critically consider the impact of our activities on these endangered species.”
It comes at the same time as scientists are racing to find a vaccine for coronavirus, and smaller primates are the key focus of researchers interest.
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In one of the most recent studies Chinese researchers found monkeys produced antibodies that attacked the virus and prevented re-infection.
“Our results indicated that the primary Sars-Cov-2 infection could protect from subsequent exposures,” wrote the team of researchers, led by Qin Chuan from Peking Union Medical College.
Meanwhile in the US researchers have been working on infecting macaque monkeys with variants of the coronavirus to see if antiviral drugs prove effective.
Tests are yet to be carried out on feral monkey populations across the globe to see what impact they may be having on the deepening pandemic.
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