Stock photo of a lion – Imagine: Unsplash

Zoo lions in Pretoria may hold key to SA’s next COVID-19 variant…

A study in Pretoria has found that zoo lions were infected by asymptomatic humans with COVID-19 – but what does it mean for future variants?


Stock photo of a lion – Imagine: Unsplash

New variant panics don’t do us any good. At a time where vaccines, boosters, and even naturally-acquired immunity against COVID-19 are booming, the fearmongering about virus mutations is, quite often, overwhelmingly misleading. However, a group of zoo lions in Pretoria may have just shown us a glimpse of the future.

Zoo lion variant next? Not quite…

Researchers from the University of Pretoria have completed a landmark study – and the only one of its kind in South Africa – which looks into the human-to-animal transmission of COVID-19.

Remarkably, they found that asymptomatic human carriers could pass the disease on to the lions in captivity – three of whom came down with a positive PCR test last year. The lions made a full recovery, but some took up to four weeks to get back to normal. However, these results come with a warning…

Human-to-animal COVID-19 transmission detected in SA

Professors involved in the research are wary that new variants could transmit FROM animals BACK to humans, after the virus switches from species to species. However, there’s no evidence any variant created in this manner could be stronger than the ones we already have, nor would it be likely to bypass basic vaccine protections.

  • It’s certainly something to note, but for now, there’s no need to hit the panic button.

“In 2021, three captive lions tested positive for COVID. The virus was circulating among staff during the time that the lions got sick. Those with direct contact with the animals were likely responsible for the reverse zoonotic transmission.”

“Precautions such as vaccinating staff, wearing masks when entering cages and preparing food, infection control through use of disinfectants, and distance barriers for members of the public should be put in place at zoos.” 

“These measures are also important because of the risk of new variants emerging if the virus establishes itself in other animal reservoirs; these variants could be transmitted back to humans.”

University of Pretoria