Most frequent questions and answers
After consultation with our Peruvian partners and field scientists, we decided to cancel all field programs for 2020. Those students accepted into 2020’s programs will be given first priority for programs in 2021. The two major factors that are influenced this decision:
1. Travel bans, quarantines, or shelter-in-place guidelines imposed by the Peruvian government on their own and foreign citizens.
2. The field station at where we work has been temporarily closed by the Peruvian NGO which manages its operation.
We are proceeding with 2021 program enrollments, which are currently open. Of course, the situation may change at any time, requiring us to adapt. However, we are optimistic that in the coming months vaccines will be widely available, and we will be able to have a normal field research season.
That said, there will absolutely be enhanced safety requirements, including additional PPE and adjusted field protocols. It is furthermore quite likely that any proven and ubiquitous COVID-19 vaccine available before May 2021 would become a requirement.
If the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not under control before our programs, or conditions appear unsafe, we reserve the right to cancel any and all programs, and to refund participants any fees already paid.
As of November 24th, the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker estimates that Peru has 950,557 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 35,641 deaths. Limited international flights have resumed, but face masks and social distancing are mandatory, and nightly curfews are also being enforced.
To enter the country, a negative PCR result within 72 hours must be provided, travelers must submit to health screenings at the airport, and an Affidavit of Health and Geolocation Authorization must be signed at Immigration.
The more we learn about the origins of COVID-19, the more we learn how critical wildlife disease screening is to human health. Animals and humans interact in a broad spectrum of ways, from domestic animals as pets in homes to the bushmeat trade with more exotic wildlife. It is very likely that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused this pandemic, originated in a wild animal. However, there has been some uncertainty surrounding exactly when and where this spillover event occurred. The truth is, we may never know – regardless of political interference (if any).
The reason for this is simple: very little monitoring of spillovers occurs at scale anywhere in the world. COVID-19 has demonstrated that it is vital that we expand monitoring systems broadly, to protect both people and wildlife from future epidemics.
Risk with wildlife handling is evaluated on two fronts: How likely is it that an animal is carrying a pathogen with high zoonotic potential (the ability to spillover into humans)? And how likely is it that the animal could be susceptible to spillovers from humans or other taxa?
Recent studies have demonstrated that animals with wide geographic ranges (e.g. domesticates) or wide species richness (e.g. bats) tend to have more likelihoods of carrying pathogens with zoonotic potential. At our site, we evaluate bats, primates, birds, and small mammals (rodents and marsupials). All of these animals could have diseases humans can acquire, and many of them could be susceptible to something as simple as the common cold. COVID-19 has not altered this risk in any way, it has always existed.
Today, we study these groups for precisely this reason: disease monitoring is critical to equipping us with a full knowledge of the range of viral strains and a better understanding of how viruses are exchanged between natural populations. But we do so with safety protocols in place.
We must first define what getting the pandemic under control really means. In an ideal situation, we would eliminate the risk of COVID-19 by vaccinating and testing humans on a global scale, and developing effective medications for those who become ill. Given the dependency of economies on international travel, without a blanket approach, there are bound to be pockets of virus still in existence. However, even if we achieved this outlandish goal, there are reasons to believe it may not work in the long-term.
First, the virus itself can mutate, as viruses do, possibly making treatments become gradually ineffective. Second, the human-wildlife interface is massive. Hundreds of thousands of contact-points occur between humans and animals across the globe. To control COVID-19 would only be controlling a tiny fraction of the viruses out there. But this is NOT cause for panic. All is not lost.
Humans and wildlife have been living in this reality for a long time, even though COVID-19 does bring it into stark relief. The important thing at this juncture is to organize disease screening efforts on a global scale as a normal and essential part of a variety of industries – from farms to hunting, wildlife management to veterinary science. In fact, if we do want to know if COVID-19 is decimating one or more vulnerable species, say those down to the last few hundred individuals in the wild, then we MUST screen them now, using technology and innovation to keep both them and us safe.
First, we postponed all field programs until stay-at-home orders are lifted and local governments deem it safe for researchers to access field sites. We are currently in touch with them to determine how such access can be granted. At this time, it is unknown exactly how they will react but one thing is certain, we need standardized and improved protocols to conduct wildlife monitoring and to deal with all eventualities, such as someone contracting this virus while working on our teams. There are no simple answers.
Currently, we are in the process of reviewing existing protocols and endeavoring to match them with those utilized in studying catarrhine primates (in Asia and Africa). Historically, these animals have been recognized to contain known pathogens of danger to humans, and we have cases of infections transmitting to them from humans with lethal consequences. This is due to the close evolutionary history they share with humans (closer than that shared by the New World Monkeys in South America). Thus, while protocols for wildlife handling in Africa have been guided by this known danger, the same cannot be said for South America, as a whole, where the danger has been perceived to be milder.
Our teams have always utilized gloves and masks during all handling events, banning animal access to anyone feeling ill, but we must and can do better. This could include testing of researchers to make sure only healthy individuals access the animals, but testing itself is not as widely available as yet, complicating matters more. At this time, we are aggregating the best resources to move forward with our work.
But we are not giving up because it is precisely during a pandemic that the study of disease spread is critical. Our job is to do it safely.