As many as eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have contracted COVID-19 from a human handler after one of the animals tested positive. It marks the first known transmission of the virus to apes, zoo officials said on Monday.
Three among the band of critically endangered western lowland gorillas at the park have shown symptoms of the virus. Though none appears severely ill, and all are expected to fully recover, the zoo said in online statements.
Laboratory analysis of a fecal sample collected from one of two gorillas initially seen coughing detected the virus, said a zoo spokesperson.
The positive results were confirmed on Monday by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories.
How are the gorillas doing now?
The test was definitive for only a single animal, said Reuters. All eight gorillas are presumed by US zoo officials to have been exposed to COVID-19 and possibly infected with SAR-CoV-2.
“Gorilla troops live together in both our zoological natural habitat and the wild. We have to assume, as we do with human families, that all members of the family group have been exposed,” the zoo said in a fact sheet.
James added that human-style collection of mucus or saliva samples from individual gorillas is considered too risky for the apes.
The gorillas are believed to have contracted the virus from an asymptomatic staff member. Despite adherence to strict bio-security protocols consistent with US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the zoo said.
Rigorous infection-control measures were in place there well before the pandemic. Apes – as close biological cousins to humans – are especially susceptible to human-carried pathogens while lacking natural immunity to them.
Zoo officials said they do not know how the coronavirus will ultimately affect gorillas or what additional symptoms may occur.
“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” Lisa Peterson, executive director of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park said. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”
The gorilla troop at the 1,800-acre San Diego Safari Park consists of five females and three males. It includes an elder “silverback” named Winston about 45 years old. At least eight other gorillas exhibited at the nearby San Diego Zoo were not affected. Both facilities have been closed to the public due to the pandemic since early December.
Coronavirus in animals
The coronavirus has also been found in a number of other wild-animal species in captivity. Several lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo in New York and four lions at the Barcelona Zoo in Spain.
But the gorillas in San Diego are the first known case of infections confirmed in apes. Gorillas are members of the family of primates known as the great apes, or hominids. They also include chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, and humans.
The virus has also shown up in a number of household dogs and cats. Last month, the USDA said it had confirmed the first known case of the coronavirus in an animal in the wild, a mink, following an outbreak among farmed minks that killed 15,000 of the animals.
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