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SAN DIEGO (FYI.press) — Two gorillas have tests positive for SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This appears to be a first for the primate population.
Members of the Gorilla Troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. On Wednesday, January 6, two of the gorillas began coughing. Given current circumstances, San Diego Zoo Global initiated the process of testing fecal samples from the gorillas for SARS-CoV-2 through the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System (CA HFS). On January 8, the preliminary tests detected the presence of the virus in the gorilla troop. The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) confirmed the positive results on Monday, January 11.
The test results confirm the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in some of the gorillas and does not definitively rule out the presence of the virus in other members of the troop.
“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” said Lisa Peterson, executive director, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”
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. Research studies have verified that some non-human primates are susceptible to infection with SARS-CoV-2, but this is the first known instance of natural transmission to great apes and it is unknown if they will have any serious reaction.
“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,” said Peterson. “The safety of our staff and the wildlife in our care remains our number one priority.”
San Diego Zoo Global’s wildlife care professionals and conservationists have cared for family groups of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park for decades and contribute their expertise in efforts to protect this species in the Ebo Forest of Cameroon. San Diego Zoo Global has strict biosecurity measures in place to protect all of the wildlife in its care and has successfully protected its wildlife populations from emerging disease threats in the community such as Newcastle’s Disease and West Nile Virus. In March 2020, as the community responded to the pandemic, San Diego Zoo Global scientists worked with disease experts to share their expertise in biosecurity with USDA, AZA, and other organizations, establishing industry practices for protecting wildlife worldwide.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, like many public facilities, has been closed to the public since December 6. The primate habitat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park allow the great apes to be a safe distance from all guests at all times and pose no public health risk.
Questions & Answers from Zoo
Why did we test the Gorilla Troop?
On Wednesday, January 6, two of the gorillas were coughing and showing other mild symptoms. Given current circumstances, out of an abundance of caution and in support of CDC guidance, San Diego Zoo Global initiated the process of SARS-CoV-2 testing.
How do we know that the gorillas at the Safari Park have COVID-19?
San Diego Zoo Global and the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System (CAHFS) detected the presence of the virus in the gorilla troop through a positive fecal test on Friday, January 8. USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection in this gorilla troop on January 11.
How are the gorillas doing?
They are doing well. With the exception of some mild symptoms, the troop is currently eating and drinking. They are being closely observed and there is nothing to suggest today that they won’t make a full recovery.
Is the entire troop sick?
Three animals are currently exhibiting signs of illness such as coughing. Although the results of the fecal testing only confirm the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in some of the gorillas, this does not definitively rule out the presence of the virus in other members of the troop. Gorilla troops live together in both our zoological natural habitat and the wild, and we have to assume, as we do with human families, that all members of the family group have been exposed.
We do not know how SARS-CoV-2 will ultimately affect gorillas and do not know what additional symptoms may occur. Those gorillas with signs of illness such as coughing are under veterinary supervision, and the entire troop is being carefully observed. It is possible that the visible symptoms are due to other conditions rather than COVID-19
How did they get the virus?
It is suspected the troop 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 wildlife.
What is San Diego Zoo Global doing to protect the wildlife in its care from COVID-19?
San Diego Zoo Global adopted heightened biosecurity protocols around its wildlife at the onset of the pandemic last year. The fact that, despite these protocols, transmission appears to have occurred highlights the challenge we all face together with combating this highly contagious virus. With the new information presented by these cases, San Diego Zoo Global is reviewing its protocols and continues to look for ways to improve them.
What are some of the biosecurity measures in place to protect wildlife at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park?
Biosecurity measures in place at the Park include the wearing of masks at all times, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, heightened cleaning protocols, dedicated overalls and uniforms for working around wildlife and limiting staff access to highly susceptible species. Our veterinarians and wildlife care staff will be vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, beginning with our veterinary team members who were recently approved to receive the vaccination.
How will San Diego Zoo Global be treating the gorillas at the Safari Park?
We do not know whether SARS-CoV-2 infection will create a human-like illness in gorillas. Veterinarians will be monitoring the gorillas closely and treating symptoms as they arise. They will also be calling upon health officials who have experience with the virus for their advice and consultation.
Is the public at risk from this recent outbreak?
There is no public risk from this occurrence. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is currently closed to the public but at no time, even under normal circumstances, would guests have contact with the gorilla troop.
Is there a concern that, when the Zoo and Park are open again to guests, that this will place the wildlife there at risk?
Early last year, as COVID-19 spread, San Diego Zoo Global officials surveyed both parks to ensure that all wildlife are managed in a way that prohibits guest contact with susceptible species – including incorporating additional protective barriers and ensuring a distance of greater than six feet when viewing potentially susceptible wildlife.
Can people give this virus to animals and, if so, what animals are at risk?
We are still learning about this virus, but it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations, especially during close contact with a person with COVID-19. We, along with the rest of the scientific community, are still learning about this new coronavirus and how it spreads. We know that both pet and large cats, dogs and some other mammals can be infected with SARS-CoV-2, but we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected. There have been reports of animals being infected with the virus worldwide, including mink, pet dogs, cats, and a ferret, as well as tigers, lions, snow leopards, and a puma.
For more information on animals and COVID-19, see CDC’s COVID-19 website:
CDC: COVID-19 and Animals
Should any animal showing signs of respiratory illness be tested?
Susceptibility does not give us information regarding the effect of SARS-CoV-2 on these species (i.e., we do not know if this means these species will show symptoms of illness or how severe any potential illness might be). USDA and CDC do not currently recommend routine testing of animals for this virus. Because the situation is ever-evolving, San Diego Zoo Global veterinarians may recommend testing certain animals out of an abundance of caution.
Should I avoid contact with wildlife if I am sick from coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Yes. People with COVID-19 (suspected or confirmed) should avoid contact with all animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife. Because wildlife can be easily disturbed and put at risk by human activities and diseases from humans, San Diego Zoo Global recommends that people exploring natural areas stay on trails and obey all signs about respecting wildlife including not trying to approach them closely or feed them.
Can the gorillas and other wildlife be vaccinated for SARS-CoV-2?
There are currently no approved vaccines for use in animals, but vaccine development and testing is underway for some species.
Does this outbreak suggest that gorillas in native habitats may be at risk from COVID-19?
Confirmation that gorillas are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 does give us more information about how the pandemic may affect these species in native habitats where they come into contact with humans and human materials. By working with health officials, conservationists and scientists to document this case, we will be expanding our knowledge about this potential challenge so that we can develop steps to protect gorillas in the forests of Africa.
How are the wildlife care professionals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park doing?
The team members who care for the gorillas are all extremely dedicated individuals who are devoted to the wildlife in their care. This situation has been very difficult for them, but they continue to work to provide the best possible care.