There is a rainforest, probably our favourite rainforest. A pristine piece of paradise and biodiversity hotspot in the heart of Ivory Coast called the Taï National Park (TNP), where chimpanzee research has been established since 1979 through the Taï Chimpanzee Project. Then, once again in this jungle, there is a disease. A familiar but unwelcome foe has emerged from the shadows among the chimpanzees.
Monkeypox virus (MPXV, family Poxviridae), since that is what it is, is a close relative of the infamous smallpox virus which has caused global devastation throughout history. In humans, the diseases caused by the two diseases are almost indistinguishable, both causing a similar exanthematous ; fortunately, monkeypox has a lower mortality rate. In a paper to be published in Nature Microbiology today, we describe in great detail the recent repeated emergence of MPXV in three neighbouring communities of wild western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) living in TNP. Through daily monitoring and non-invasive sampling, we provide insight into the epidemiology and ecology of this virus and the disease(s) it causes. We show that in chimpanzees monkeypox can have very different clinical courses, ranging from a uniquely respiratory syndrome without the typical skin lesions to a diffuse cutaneous rash. We sequenced 14 viral genomes, which we use to show that each chimpanzee community was infected with a different MPXV, reflecting independent transmission events. By isolating live virus from faeces and flies we provide preliminary evidence of how these may contribute to indirect transmission of the virus. Finally, we use social network analysis of long-term behavioural data to show how grooming may play a part in disease transmission. The paper is complemented with photos and videos from the outbreak, allowing the reader to fully understand disease manifestations.
As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic sweeps worldwide, the importance of wildlife health monitoring has never been more evident. With this article we show that such research on our closest relatives can go way beyond pinpointing the circulation of pathogens of public health relevance, even down the line to demonstrating the existence of different clinical presentations that might influence our ability of detecting pathogen activity in both humans and animals. This type of research is however only possible where chimpanzees are well habituated and behavioural and health data have been accumulating for decades, which further highlights the immense value of projects such as the TCP.