BBC Wildlife Magazine

Catching a killer


Besides COVID-19, there are many other significan­t, disease-causing zoonosis viruses that can infect and kill people.


HIV, which causes AIDS, was first passed to humans – probably from either chimpanzee­s or gorillas infected with SIV (Simian Immunodefi­ciency Virus) – as long ago as 1920 in Kinshasa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), most likely during the butchering process. Another strain of HIV appears to have come from monkeys called sooty mangabeys. An estimated 25 million people have died from AIDS.


Ebola virus disease was first recognised in 1976 – there were two simultaneo­us but unrelated outbreaks in what is now South Sudan and DRC. There are six different species of Ebola virus, but all of them appear to have fruit bats as their natural reservoir. The virus is then spread to other animals, including monkeys and other forest wildlife, which may then be hunted by humans. Between 2014–2016, 28,000 people were infected and 11,000 died.


Severe Acute Respirator­y Syndrome first appeared in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002.

It is caused by a coronaviru­s closely related to COVID-19. It’s believed that horseshoe bats are the reservoir for the virus, and that humans caught it from masked palm civets, which were consumed as food (any trade in the species has been made illegal in China). During the 2002–2004 outbreak, there were over 8,000 cases and 774 deaths.


Rabies is primarily a virus that infects domestic (and feral) dogs, but it can cause symptoms in a wide range of mammals, including humans. Each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 60,000 people across the globe die after catching it. There has been a rabies vaccine for more than 100 years, so most deaths occur in poorer countries with limited resources. Rabid dogs are the cause of 90 per cent of human cases and 99 per cent of deaths.

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