Coronavirus: Tiger at Bronx Zoo Is First Animal in U.S. to Test Positive
Nadia, a four-year-old Malayan tiger, was tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 after she developed a dry cough and began to lose her appetite, Reuters reported. Three other tigers and three lions have also developed a cough, though Nadia was the only one tested because she was the sickest and large cats have to be anesthetized for testing.
"I couldn't believe it," Zoo Director Jim Breheny told The Associated Press of the positive test result.
He said the zoo had only tested Nadia "out of an abundance of caution."
Officials believe Nadia caught the disease from a zoo worker who was asymptomatic at the time. The worker had contact with all of the infected animals, who live in two separate areas, and the zoo has been closed to the public since March 16. The infected worker is now doing okay.
In addition to Nadia, her sister Azul, two Amur tigers and three African lions have shown symptoms. The first animal fell ill March 27.
"It's the first time, to our knowledge, that a [wild] animal has gotten sick from COVID-19 from a person," chief Bronx Zoo veterinarian Paul Calle told National Geographic.
The tigers' infection builds on evidence that animals can catch the virus from people. A Pomeranian and a German Shepherd tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong, as did a domestic cat in Belgium. A Chinese study also found that cats may be able to transmit the disease to each other.
Steven Van Gucht, virologist and federal spokesperson for the coronavirus epidemic in Belgium, explained to Live Science why felines are susceptible to the disease:
Cats and humans appear to have a similar "doorknob" on the surfaces of respiratory cells that lets the SARS-CoV-2 virus get inside, according to Van Gucht.
In humans, scientists have figured out that the SARS-CoV-2 virus attaches to a receptor protein called ACE2 that's on the outside of respiratory cells. Once inside of these cells, the virus hijacks certain machinery so it can replicate.
"The feline ACE2 protein resembles the human ACE2 homologue, which is most likely the cellular receptor which is being used by Sars-CoV-2 for cell entry," Van Gucht said.
The Belgian cat recovered after nine days, and the tigers and lions in the Bronx Zoo are expected to make a full recovery as well, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoo, told Reuters.
However, the fact that tigers and lions can catch the new coronavirus has frightening implications for feline conservation.
"Big cats like tigers and lions are already facing a litany of threats to their survival in the wild," chief scientist and tiger program director at Panthera John Goodrich told National Geographic. "If COVID-19 jumps to wild big cat populations and becomes a significant cause of mortality, the virus could develop into a very serious concern for the future of these species."
This is already a fear for endangered populations of great apes, which are known to be susceptible to human colds. Bronx Zoo workers who interact with the big cats will now wear protective gear as they long have when working with primates, The Associated Press reported.
However, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus will pass back from cats or other animals to humans.
"There doesn't appear to be, at this time, any evidence that suggests that the animals can spread the virus to people or that they can be a source of the infection in the United States," U.S. Department of Agriculture official and veterinarian Dr. Jane Rooney told The Associated Press.
The American Veterinary Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people sick with the virus limit their contact with animals out of an abundance of caution.
While the new disease is originally believed to have passed from animals to humans, its spread is driven by human to human transmission. As of Monday morning, the disease has led to 1,277,962 confirmed cases and 69,555 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. New York City is the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak, with more confirmed cases than any other city in the country, The New York Times reported. The Bronx is the second-most impacted borough, after Queens.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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