Two gorillas have tested positive for COVID-19 for the first time since the pandemic started. The gorillas showed symptoms, including coughing, at the San Diego Zoo last week. The staff took tests, which came back positive early this week.
“Despite all our efforts and dedication from our team members to protect the wildlife in our care, our gorilla troop has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2,” said Lisa Peterson, executive director of the zoo.
Zoo officials indicated that the animals might have contracted the disease from an asymptomatic member of the staff. Specialists look at this incident as proof that the biggest risk in the transmission of the virus is proximity to the infected party.
“The fact that we are just seeing the first evidence of ape exposure now after months of transmission potential for captive and wild apes underscores the importance of proximity, as opposed to contaminated surfaces, as the primary source of infection,” said Thomas R. Gillespie, a disease ecologist and conservation biologist at Emory University.
Throughout the pandemic, there have been concerns about the possibility of humans infecting animals and vice versa. There have been some reports of humans passing the virus to pets such as dogs and cats, but there has been no conclusive report to ascertain the risk that animals face. The most severe cases were reported in Europe, where millions of minks on fur farms were culled. In another incident, a tiger at Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for the disease in April 2020. Later the same year, four tigers and three lions also tested positive for COVID-19.
The news of the San Diego Zoo gorillas contracting the virus is already causing concerns among conservationists. The biggest risk lies in Africa, where the only remaining populations of wild gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees are found. Given that gorillas and other great apes share approximately 95% of the human genome, they are likely to suffer similar effects of the virus as humans.
“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,” the zoo said in a statement. “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.”
Image via San Diego Zoo