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Lions in South Africa test positive for COVID-19

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In South Africa, scientists have found that zoo handlers infected captive lions with COVID. The big cats recovered. But the story doesn't end there. NPR's Eyder Peralta explains why this bit of science matters.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Of course, we have to start with the big, burning question. How exactly do you swab a lion's throat to test for COVID?

MARIETJIE VENTER: You need to tranquilize it and then see that it's sleeping. And then you tranquilize it again until it doesn't growl (laughter) before you put your hand down its throat.

PERALTA: That's Dr. Marietjie Venter, who studies zoonotic respiratory viruses at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She and her team actually did put their hands down a lion's throat at a private South African zoo. And it confirmed that the sick lions had COVID-19. And then they sequenced the RNA and found the exact same strain in one of the lion keepers.

VENTER: It was the big cat keepers. And so he was going into the cages to feed them and also to clean the cages.

PERALTA: What her study found is that humans were, indeed, infecting big cats - lions and possibly pumas. And that is a problem for two reasons. First, we're not sure how COVID could affect an already vulnerable species. In this case, the animals got sick but survived. And secondly, the scientists kept testing the big cats. And they remained positive for about seven weeks. Imagine, she says, if the wild lion population got infected.

VENTER: The worry is really that if it established there that we may end up with new variants that we don't know about. And it comes as a surprise.

PERALTA: Indeed, Dr. Venter says, in other parts of the world, COVID has become established in wild animal populations. In the U.S., scientists have found COVID running rampant through the wild deer population, potentially creating a variant factory.

VENTER: So we don't want a similar situation here.

PERALTA: Dr. Venter says they are warning the South African government to take precautions, making sure that as people come into contact with animals, they take some mitigation efforts, like wearing a mask - and also putting into place enough surveillance to understand how COVID is moving through the wild populations and what mutations may be happening.

FELIX LANKESTER: I mean, it shouldn't surprise us, given the nature of the coronavirus that we're dealing with.

PERALTA: That is Dr. Felix Lankester, who studies zoonotic infectious diseases in Africa with Washington State University. Scientists believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus jumped from an animal to a human, so it's not surprising, he says. But now it's jumping from a human to an animal. And it won't be surprising if it jumps back to humans.

LANKESTER: It's entirely possible that a strain that is circulating in a wild animal population could mutate and evolve and then spill back into humans with severe consequences.

PERALTA: He says these types of studies should serve as a warning. The next big variant, the next big pandemic, could jump from any one of these animals. The least we should do, he says, is keep a close eye on where that is likely to be happening, so it doesn't come as a surprise.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Cape Town, South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAY THERE'S "ELEVATOR VIBES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.