Zoo Atlanta reported Friday that they have received presumptive positive test results indicating that members of its western lowland gorilla troops are positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They are currently treating 13 western lowland gorillas who have tested positive.
Recently, Gorilla Care Team members observed coughing, nasal discharge, and minor changes in appetite in several members of the gorilla population. Upon the onset of these signs, the Animal Care and Veterinary Teams immediately pursued testing for SARS-CoV-2. Fecal samples and nasal and oral swab samples were sent to the Athens Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Georgia, where they tested presumptively positive. Zoo Atlanta is waiting to receive the results of the confirmatory tests on samples sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.
The Veterinary Team, in consultation with veterinarians at other accredited zoological organizations with similar cases, as well as with human doctors experienced with COVID-19 in humans, is treating the gorillas at risk of developing complications from SARS-CoV-2 with monoclonal antibodies. The teams are collecting samples for testing for the Zoo’s entire gorilla population, which includes 20 members living in four troops, and will regularly test the gorillas regardless of the presence of symptoms.
While it cannot be known with certainty how the gorillas acquired the virus, the Animal Care and Veterinary Teams believe the infections originated with a COVID-positive care team member. The team member is fully vaccinated, was wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and was asymptomatic on the day of reporting to work.
While humans are known to be able to transmit the virus to animals such as gorillas, and these cases have occurred at other zoos, there is currently no data to suggest that zoo animals can transmit the virus to humans. Regardless, Zoo Atlanta visitors do not pose a transmission threat to the gorillas or vice versa given the distance between the areas used by guests and the animals’ habitats.
“The teams are very closely monitoring the affected gorillas and are hopeful they will make a complete recovery. They are receiving the best possible care, and we are prepared to provide additional supportive care should it become necessary,” said Sam Rivera, DVM, Senior Director of Animal Health. “We are very concerned that these infections occurred, especially given that our safety protocols when working with great apes and other susceptible animal species are, and throughout the pandemic have been, extremely rigorous.”
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