Update! WAN Talks With The USDA & Wildlife Conservation Society About Malayan Tiger Infected With COVID-19 After Being In Contact With Her Caretaker At The Bronx Zoo

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Photo from Wildlife Conservation Society

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories has confirmed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, has infected a four-year-old female Malayan tiger named Nadia at the Bronx Zoo in New York. This is the first-ever case of a tiger being infected with COVID-19.

WAN talked this morning to Max Pulsinelli, Director of Communications for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Zoos and Aquarium for the Bronx Zoo, and while he is understandably overwhelmed with media inquires, Pulsinelli shared the following answer to one of WAN’s questions regarding the testing of the tiger for COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 testing that was performed on our Malayan tiger, Nadia, was performed in a veterinary school laboratory and is not the same test as is used for people,” Dr. Paul Calle, Bronx Zoo Chief Veterinarian told WAN in a statement. “You cannot send human samples to the veterinary laboratory, and you cannot send animal tests to the human laboratories, so there is no competition for testing between these very different situations.”

According to Lyndsay Cole, Assistant Director of Public Affairs for USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the zoo proactively collected the samples (oropharyngeal and nasal swabs and tracheal washes). Cole told WAN in an email response, “the samples were collected from the tiger on April 2nd, and tested at the independent laboratories in Chicago and New York on April 3rd. As soon as the results in Chicago were determined to be presumptive positive, the samples were driven to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, and tested there on April 4th.”

Samples were taken from Nadia after she, her sister Azul, two Amur tigers, and three African lions had developed a dry cough. All are thankfully expected to recover.

As noted by WCS, only one tiger was tested as the collection of diagnostic samples in big cats requires general anesthesia. Since all tigers and lions were exhibiting similar respiratory symptoms, the attending veterinarian felt it was in the best interest of the animals to limit the potential risks of general anesthesia to one tiger for diagnostics.

As per a statement on the USDA’s website, public health officials believe these large cats became sick after being exposed to a zoo employee who was actively shedding the virus. The zoo has been closed to the public since mid-March, and the first tiger began showing signs of sickness on March 27th. All of these large cats are expected to recover. There is no evidence that other animals in other areas of the zoo are showing symptoms.

“Our cats were infected by a person caring for them who was asymptomatically infected with the virus or before that person developed symptoms,” WSC explained in a statement. “Appropriate preventive measures are now in place for all staff who are caring for them, and the other cats in our four WCS zoos, to prevent further exposure of any other of our zoo cats.”

Cole further explained to WAN that, “the zoo has implemented heightened sanitation and hygiene measures to protect staff and animals, including a strict and supportive policy in place to keep sick employees home.  Zoo employees who work with the tigers and lions are maintaining physical distance and wearing personal protective equipment to protect them while the tigers and lions are sick, and to prevent further human to animal transmission.”

It is not known how this disease will develop in big cats since different species can react differently to novel infections, but WCS states that they will continue to monitor them closely and anticipate full recoveries of the big cats.

USDA and CDC are monitoring the situation and working to support the state and local health departments and state animal health officials. State animal and public health officials will take the lead in making determinations about whether animals, either at this zoo or in other areas, should be tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. USDA will notify the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) of this finding.

At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that any animals, including pets, can spread the COVID-19 infection to people.

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