Several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have tested positive for the coronavirus in what are believed to be the first known cases among such primates in the United States and possibly the world.
The park’s executive director, Lisa Peterson, told The Associated Press news agency on Monday that eight gorillas that live together at the park are believed to have the virus and several have been coughing. It appears the infection came from a member of the park’s wildlife care team, who also tested positive for the virus but was asymptomatic and had worn a mask at all times around the gorillas. The park has been closed to the public since December 6 as part of the state of California’s lockdown efforts to curb coronavirus cases, at least two of the gorillas began coughing last week, while a third is showing symptoms.
Positive test results were confirmed by the US Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories in three gorillas. Faeces from all eight in the troop are being taken for testing. Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well, added Peterson. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.” Gorillas share up to 98 percent of their DNA with humans and studies have found that some non-human primates are also susceptible to COVID-19 infection. It is not yet known if the gorillas will have a serious reaction to the disease that has killed nearly two million people and infected almost 91 million others.
The gorillas infected at the San Diego park are western lowland gorillas, whose population has declined by more than 60 percent over the last 20 years because of poaching and disease, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Zoo officials are talking to experts who have been treating the coronavirus in humans in case the animals develop more severe symptoms. They will remain together since separating them could be harmful to the gorillas that live in tight-knit groups. “This is wildlife and they have their own resiliency and can heal differently than we do,” said Peterson, the head of the zoo. The safari park on Monday added more safety measures for its staff, including requiring face shields and eye goggles when working in contact with the animals.
The confirmation that gorillas are susceptible to the coronavirus contributes to information about how the pandemic may affect these species in their native habitats where they come into contact with humans and human materials, the park officials said. San Diego Zoo Safari Park plans to share what it learns with health officials, conservationists and scientists to develop steps to protect gorillas in the forests of Africa.