Eight Asiatic lions at Hyderabad zoo test positive for coronavirus

The Union government has said that there is no factual evidence that animals can transmit the disease to humans any further.
A representative image of an Asiatic lion
A representative image of an Asiatic lion
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Eight Asiatic lions at the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, making it the first such case where an animal in the state has contracted the disease. Zoo authorities had decided to carry out RT-PCR tests on the lions after they began to show symptoms. According to sources, the zoo authorities noticed that the lions were found coughing and had nasal discharge. They had also reportedly noticed a loss of appetite. When the symptoms were brought to the notice of the zoo officials and the veterinarians, it was decided to get the lions tested for COVID-19.

Hyderabad’s Nehru Zoological Park has a total of 12 lions. Eight among them have been found positive for the virus. Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) Director Rakesh Mishra told TNM that the same kits that are used for humans were used to test the big cats too.

“Eight animals were found positive, they had symptoms also. We checked that they are infected with the old variant, not the new variant that we are concerned about. The animals are recovering, they are fine, they are eating. They are also putting systems in place so that the animals are more isolated, removing possibilities of more infections. All those procedures are being put in place,” Mishra said.

Mishra added that the samples collected from the lions were sequenced by CCMB and were found to belong to the A2a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. According to reports, the A2a variant was one of the most common variants found in the genomes of the virus analysed during the first wave. It has been speculated that other mutant variants —  like the double mutant variant and the N440K variant —  are driving the alarming second wave of COVID-19 in India. Mishra said that it was not these worrying newer mutant variants, but the older A2a variant, which was found in the samples from the Hyderabad lions.  While the source of infection is difficult to ascertain, Mishra said that it is possible that the animals may have contracted the virus from the caretakers or other humans who were in contact with them. 

He added, “Infections in animals have been a concern, but people have tested and found that it’s not generally seen in cats or dogs. But we are going to do more extensive testing now and we’ll try to find out more information." Quoting international figures, Rakesh Mishra said that out of many mammalian species tested, 13 were found to have contracted the virus.

The Union government has maintained that there is no evidence that animals can transmit the disease to humans. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a statement, saying, "Based on experience with zoo animals elsewhere in the world that have tested SARS-COV-2 positive last year, there is no factual evidence that animals can transmit the disease to humans any further." 

The Hyderabad zoo has been closed to the public since May 2 in view of the rising cases of COVID-19 after an advisory from the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change, New Delhi to close all zoological parks, national parks, tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries for visitors.

Based on the orders, it was decided that the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, the Kakatiya Zoological Park in Warangal, the Kawal and Amrabad Tiger Reserves, and all national and wildlife sanctuaries in Telangana be shut as a precautionary measure to prevent spread of virus among wildlife.

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