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8 Asiatic lions test Covid positive at Hyderabad zoo, likely to have been infected by humans

The first such instance in India, the lions showed symptoms a few weeks ago. Their condition is said to be stable and they have been isolated from other animals to contain spread.

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Hyderabad: In a first in the country, eight Asiatic lions in Hyderabad’s Nehru Zoological Park (NZP) have tested positive for the coronavirus. According to Shubhadra Devi, curator, NZP, a few weeks back, zoo authorities noticed symptoms such as nasal discharge from the lions housed in the Lion Safari enclosures.

The animals’ oropharyngeal swab samples were collected and sent to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) for testing and genome sequencing. RT-PCR tests confirmed the animals had contracted Covid-19. It is believed the disease was transmitted through humans.

“We’ve done genome sequencing apart from the tests to understand the kind of variant [that has infected the lions] and it is obvious that the animals have mostly picked the virus up from humans … there is no other possible source,” Rakesh Mishra, director, CCMB, told ThePrint.

“It could be from the people who were feeding the lions and taking care of them. The infection is owing to the existing variant [of the virus], and there is no [presence of] the UK variant or India’s double mutant variant of the virus, as we feared,” Mishra added.

The infected lions have been isolated to prevent the spread of the disease in the zoo. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Tuesday ruled out the possibility of humans getting infected from the animals, and said that there is no factual evidence that animals can transmit the disease to humans.

“The lions have been responding to the medication well, have been isolated and their health condition is stable. They have very mild symptoms. They’ve been eating well,” a source in the zoo told ThePrint. “They’re anyway in the Safari section [a separate 40-acre area], so there’s no danger to any other animal,” the source added.

A statement issued by the zoo Tuesday said a special drive was conducted in the first week of April to vaccinate staff. So far, 95 per cent of zoo employees have already been vaccinated. A few of staff members, who tested positive for Covid, have been asked to remain in isolation. On the recommendation of the Central Zoo Authority, NZP was also closed to visitors from 2 May onwards to limit external contact.

Spread across 300 acres, NZP is home to over 1,500 species of birds, reptiles and animals, and is one of the most-visited places in the city, both by tourists and Hyderabad residents. The zoo has a total of 22 lions, including 12 Asiatic lions. The remaining are African lions. Eight of the Asiatic lions are currently being treated for Covid.

Also read: It’s not just India, fierce new Covid waves have hit many developing countries

Battling Covid in animals

In April last year, five tigers and three lions at New York City’s Bronx Zoo tested positive for Covid-19. This, however, is the first such case in India.

“Since the pandemic began, many zoos and animal farms have reported that their animals have been infected from humans. It is essential to follow strict safety regulations in Indian zoos in the current times to avoid transmitting the infection to the animals. Getting swab samples from animals is very difficult,” said Dr Karthikeyan Vasudevan, scientist-in-charge, Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species, CCMB, in a statement issued Tuesday.

A statement issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change informed that the Central Zoo Authority has taken pre-emptive measures, including issuing of guidelines and advisories to zoos about precautions to be taken during the pandemic.

The guidelines for prevention, sample collection, detection in suspected cases, and safety protocols for animal keepers have been suggested in consultation with scientific agencies and experts at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Uttar Pradesh, and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology — Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (CCMB-LaCONES), Hyderabad, the ministry statement added.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: India’s Covid crisis shows lack of foresight, complacency, says Raghuram Rajan


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