A Letter from the Executive Director: COVID-19By Gorilla Doctors Staff on Sunday, March 15th, 2020 in Blog.
Dear Friends and Supporters,
Last week, I attended and presented at the UC Davis One Health Institute annual meeting. As you can imagine, the coronavirus pandemic was a major focus. The One Health Institute, Gorilla Doctors’ administrative home at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, has been at the forefront of international surveillance and research on the very factors that have led to this moment in which we now find ourselves – facing the reality of the intersections among wildlife, people and the emerging pathogens that can lead to life-altering changes for people and the world.
For the past 10 years (2009-2019), the One Health Institute led the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT project to identify and detect viruses carried by wildlife that could pose a risk to human health, and to recommend measures to reduce spillover. Gorilla Doctors was the implementing partner in Rwanda, Uganda and eastern DR Congo, and a team led by our Head Veterinarians (Drs. Julius Nziza, Eddy Kambale Syaluha and Benard Ssebide) collected and tested samples from more than 7,000 people and wild animals. With our laboratory partners, we detected more than 80 viruses (both novel and known) in the three countries, including several novel coronaviruses.1 [Note: SARS CoV-2 which causes COVID-19 disease in people was not discovered by the PREDICT project and emerged only recently.] As a result of our research and surveillance, Gorilla Doctors is uniquely positioned to work closely with our government partners as we aim to prevent the potential spread of SARS CoV-2 and other pathogens to gorillas and other great apes in the region.
To date, we do not know if SARS CoV-2 infections have occurred in human-habituated eastern gorillas (mountain and Grauer’s) or other great apes in the region. We do know that great apes, including gorillas, are susceptible to human respiratory pathogens2 and that respiratory illnesses regularly occur in mountain gorillas. When a gorilla is sick, our veterinarians collect diagnostic samples (fresh feces) to be screened for multiple pathogens, including the new SARS CoV-2 virus.
On February 7, 2020, Gorilla Doctors issued a memo to our partners about the potential risks posed by SARS CoV-2 to the health of eastern gorillas and how these risks could be mitigated. There are best-practice protective measures in place to reduce and ideally prevent the introduction of human-borne pathogens to human-habituated eastern gorillas, and we are supporting our government partners in implementation of these best practice protocols. With the first human cases confirmed in the region (DR Congo and Rwanda), now is the time to strengthen and expand these protections for eastern gorillas.
Gorilla Doctors’ mission – conserving wild mountain and eastern (Grauer’s) gorillas using life-saving veterinary medicine, science and a One Health approach – is at the forefront of global wildlife conservation. Despite the current pandemic, I am hopeful and confident that Gorilla Doctors’ One Health approach – understanding the intrinsic connectedness among wildlife, humans and the environments we all share – will ultimately provide the very solutions we need to prevent future outbreaks.
The health and well-being of Gorilla Doctors staff is my top priority, and protecting the health of eastern gorillas is Gorilla Doctors’ top priority. I appreciate your continued support during this unprecedented time and thank each of you for always believing in the vision and mission of Gorilla Doctors. I wish you and your loved ones continued health and safety.
Dr. Kirsten Gilardi
Executive Director & Chief Veterinary Officer, Gorilla Doctors
Associate Director, UC Davis One Health Institute
P.S. For any questions you may have about this novel coronavirus pandemic, I refer you to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and the World Health Organization (WHO) websites for up-to-date information.
1Nziza, et al. (2019). EcoHealth Online
2Palacios et al. (2011). Emerging Infectious Diseases 17: 711-713