Several members of a troop of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in people, in January. The gorillas represent the first known instance of transmission of the virus to great apes.
The troop was infected with a highly contagious new strain of the virus recently identified in California.
“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” said Lisa Peterson, executive director of the zoo, in a Jan. 11 press release. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”
The Safari Park gorilla troop likely contracted the virus from an asymptomatic staff member despite staff members following the zoo’s biosecurity precautions, COVID-19 safety protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and San Diego County Public Health Services guidelines, according to the zoo.
“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,” Peterson said in the press release. “The safety of our staff and the wildlife in our care remains our number one priority.”
The National Veterinary Services Laboratories within the U.S. Department of Agriculture had confirmed 131 cases of animals testing positive for the COVID-19 virus as of Jan. 15. Cats and dogs have seen the most confirmed infections over the past year, followed by mink, tigers, lions, snow leopards, and gorillas. Testing of 3,625 animals for SARS-CoV-2 had been reported to the USDA as of Jan. 15.
One of the older gorillas at Safari Park, Winston, a silverback, underwent a diagnostic examination because of his age and clinical signs, according to a Jan. 25 press release from the zoo. The veterinarians who performed the examination confirmed pneumonia and heart disease. Winston was treated with heart medications, antimicrobials, and monoclonal antibodies. The veterinary team believes the antibody treatment contributed to Winston’s ability to overcome the virus.
A network of collaborators joined forces with San Diego Zoo Global, the conservation arm of the zoo, to provide the best care it could for the gorillas, including the University of California-San Diego, California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, CDC, Great Ape Heart Project at Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, and California Department of Health, among others.
The network was able to provide San Diego Zoo Global veterinarians with a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses, which originated from a supply strictly intended for animal use.
San Diego Zoo Global is also sharing its experience with other wildlife care professionals at over 200 zoos worldwide and is committed to sharing resources to protect great apes.
The primate habitat does allow the great apes to be a safe distance from all guests and does not pose a potential public health risk.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park was closed to the public for two months because of a statewide lockdown order but reopened to the public Jan. 30 with additional safety protocols, including a ticket reservation system required for entry.