While scientists continue to study the effect of SARS-CoV-2 on humans, less work has focused on how susceptible other primates are to the virus.
New research explored the likelihood that our primate relatives are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection. The SARS-CoV-2 virus binds to a cellular receptor protein, the ACE2 protein. ACE2 resides on the surface of cells throughout the human body. When SARS-CoV-2 binds to ACE2, it overtakes the cell’s protein mechanisms, makes copies of itself, and the infection begins.
This new research studied the characteristics of the ACE2 protein in 29 primate species, as well as four non-primate species for comparison. The researchers found that catarrhines, a group of monkeys and apes that live in Africa and Asia, are likely to be susceptible to a SARS-CoV-2 infection because their ACE2 proteins are similar to ours. This is supported by findings that biomedical populations of catarrhines, specifically rhesus monkeys, long-tailed macaques, and vervet monkeys have become infected with SARS-CoV-2 and expressed COVID-19-like symptoms.
The platyrrhines (monkeys that live in the Americas) and strepsirrhines (lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers) are generally less susceptible to contracting the disease.
These results are important for our understanding of the novel coronavirus and for primate conservation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The endangered status of many non-human primates means that contracting the virus could be disastrous. For example, there are about 1000 mountain gorillas alive today and should that population become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the effect would be devastating.