Gorillas at San Diego zoo test positive for Covid-19, here’s what’s known about first such case in great apes

It is believed the gorillas may have been infected by a staff member who did not have symptoms of the virus


                            Gorillas at San Diego zoo test positive for Covid-19, here’s what’s known about first such case in great apes
Great apes (Getty Images)

Gorillas at a San Diego zoo have tested positive for coronavirus, in what is believed to be the first known instance of Covid-19 among captive great apes. On January 6, two of the gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in California started coughing. 

The zoo began testing fecal samples from the gorillas for the coronavirus through the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System. On January 8, the preliminary tests detected the presence of the virus in the gorilla troop. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) confirmed the positive results on January 11. 

According to the zoo authorities, while the test results confirm the presence of Covid-19 in some of the gorillas, it does not definitively rule out the presence of the virus in other members of the troop. The gorillas live as a family, so it is assumed that all members have been exposed. Research studies have verified that some non-human primates are susceptible to infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, but the zoo notes that this is the “first known instance of natural transmission to great apes” and it is unknown if they will have any serious reaction. The gorillas are being closely monitored. 

The US Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed the positive results on January 11 (Getty Images)

“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well. The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery,” says Lisa Peterson, executive director, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. 

It is believed the gorillas may have been infected by a staff member who did not have symptoms of the virus. “It is suspected the gorillas acquired the infection from an asymptomatic staff member, despite following all recommended precautions, including Covid-19 safety protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and San Diego County Public Health as well as wearing PPE when near the gorillas,” note officials. 

San Diego Zoo Global, which owns the park, emphasized that the infected gorillas pose no threat to the public. San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park are temporarily closed to visitors. The temporary state-mandated closure went into effect on December 7, 2020, and will remain in place until the Southern California region’s zoos are permitted to re-open by the state of California. 

San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park are temporarily closed to visitors (Getty Images)

“For almost one year our team members have been working tirelessly, with the utmost determination to protect each other and the wildlife in our care from this highly contagious virus. The safety of our staff and the wildlife in our care remains our number one priority,” adds Peterson.

What does CDC say?

Covid-19 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing and talking. According to the CDC, currently, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people. Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading coronavirus to people is considered to be low.

Currently, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading Covid-19 to people
(Getty Images)

The CDC, however, cautions that SARS-CoV-2 can spread from people to animals in some situations, especially after close contact with a person with Covid-19. “More studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by Covid-19. We are still learning about this virus, but it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations. People with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife,” recommends the agency. 

It is known that cats, dogs and some other mammals can be infected with SARS-CoV-2, but experts do not yet know all of the animals that can get infected. There have been reports of animals being infected with the virus worldwide. A small number of pet cats and dogs have been reported to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 in several countries, including the US. One ferret was reported positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Slovenia. Most of these pets became sick after contact with people with Covid-19, say experts.

Large cats in captivity have also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Several lions and tigers in a New York zoo, a puma in South Africa, tigers in a Tennessee zoo and snow leopards at a Kentucky zoo tested positive for Covid-19 after showing signs of respiratory illness. “It is suspected that these large cats became sick after being exposed to zoo employees with Covid-19,” the CDC explains.

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