700 swab samples sent to IVRI, 5 lions test Covid +ve
The Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) in Bareilly has received about 700 swab samples of wild animals since March 2020, of which only five samples of lions tested positive for Covid-19, officials at the institute said on Wednesday. The genome sequencing was being done to find out how the animals contracted Covid, they added.
All the positive cases were from this year. The first sample to test positive was of a lion at Etawah Safari Park in the first week of May, followed by another big cat in Hyderabad zoo a few days later. This led to a jump in the number of samples sent for testing.
“We began receiving samples from almost every zoo in the country where a big cat is kept. From wildlife reserves too, officials collected samples and sent them to our lab,” said K P Singh, joint director of Centre for Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic (CADRAD) at IVRI.
Singh heads the animal diagnostics wing of IVRI that houses a BSL-3 (biosafety level) facility where these samples are tested. He said a team of five scientists is looking for the Covid-19 genome to determine if the lions got the virus from humans or some other source. The institute has got 250 samples of lions, leopards, elephants, civet cats, hyenas, and domestic cattle from various parts of the country since May.
In the first week of June, three more lions tested Covid positive, this time at the Chennai zoo.
Singh admitted that getting swab samples of wild animals was not easy as they have to be tranquilised first. “We trained personnel in zoos and wildlife areas to take samples and send them,” Singh said.
As all samples testing positive are of lions, experts at CADRAD suspect they got it from humans. “Wild animals in enclosures have a high possibility of catching the infection from their handlers as compared to the wild where animals have more open space and human interference is bare minimum,” said Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist who has worked extensively on the Asiatic lions at Gir National Park in Gujarat.
Considering the large volume of test samples, Triveni Dutt, acting director of IVRI has suggested expanding the Covid-19 testing capacity of the institute. “Last year, our focus was more on testing human samples because our lab was assisting the local health administration. This year we focused only on testing samples collected from wild animals. Even though we have managed to process the volume of samples, there is a need to expand our facility so that we can process more samples if the need arises in the near future,” Dutt said.