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Hyderabad: In perhaps the first such reported incident, eight Asiatic lions in the zoo here have tested positive for COVID-19 after their saliva samples were thoroughly examined by CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Rakesh Mishra, advisor of the premier research institute said on Tuesday.

The Union environment ministry said the infection was not caused by any variant of concern, adding all the eight lions, since isolated, have responded well to the treatment and are recovering.

Further, there was no factual evidence that animals can transmit the disease to humans any further, it said.

“The saliva samples of the Asiatic lions were thoroughly tested and they turned out to be positive. As they were living closely it must have been spread among them,” Mishra told PTI.

“Now we are developing a method to test the samples of their faeces. This method would be useful in future as every time it is not possible to collect saliva samples from wild animals,” he added.

He further said the virus which is present in the lions at the Nehru Zoological Park here is not any new variant.

“They have mild symptoms and they are eating well and they are fine,” he said.

Replying to a query, he said there is every possibility of animals contracting the virus as they are also mammals like human beings.

Mishra further said these animals must have got infected through zoo-keeping staff.

“As and when we noticed symptoms of nasal discharge from the lions housed in the Lion Safari Enclosures we decided to send the samples for testing the possibility of viral infection,” Subhadra Devi, Curator, NZP said.

A senior official said the samples from the wild animals will be collected either by ‘Squeeze cage’ method or by tranquilising them.

In the ‘squeeze cage’ method, the animal will be confined in a cage without any space so that it cannot move or resist while taking samples.

The animal keepers taking care of lions have been provided with PPE kits even as moats are kept well ventilated and sanitized, a Telangana government press release said.

A few of the staff members who tested positive of the virus were asked to remain in isolation even as 95 per cent of the employees of the zoo have been vaccinated.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change said that the infected animals were behaving normally.

Based on detailed diagnostic tests and reports as shared by CCMB-LaCONES (Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species) on May 4, it has been confirmed that the eight Asiatic lions housed in NZP have tested positive for SARS-CoV2 virus, it said.

“The eight lions have been isolated and due care and necessary treatment has been provided. All the eight lions have responded well to the treatment and were recovering.”

“They are behaving normally and eating well.

Preventive measures are already in place for all zoo staff and the zoo has been closed to visitors to avoid minimal external contact,” it said in a release.

In view of rapid spread of the coronavirus in the country, the Ministry recently issued an advisory to close all zoological parks, national parks, tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries for visitors till further orders to control the spread of the pandemic.

Accordingly, the zoo here, Kakatiya Zoological Park, Warangal, Kawal and Amrabad Tiger Reserves, all National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Telangana were closed from May 2.

“As part of next steps new guidelines for COVID precautions are being further developed in consultation with experts. Additional information shall be issued as warranted,” the release said.

Based on experience with zoo animals elsewhere in the world that tested positive for the virus last year, “there is no factual evidence that animals can transmit the disease to humans any further,” it said.

India has four designated COVID-19 testing centres for captive animals, of which LaCONES-CCMB is one.

According to published reports earlier, lions and tigers had tested positive for Covid-19 in zoos in Barcelona (Spain) and Bronx in the US.

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