Gorillas at Zoo Atlanta test positive for virus that causes COVID-19

Courtesy Zoo Atlanta

Gorillas at Zoo Atlanta have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

According to a statement released by the zoo,  members of the gorilla care team observed coughing, nasal discharge, and minor changes in appetite in several members of the western lowland gorilla population.

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.

 Zoo Atlanta’s veterinary team in consultation with veterinarians at other accredited zoological organizations, 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.

Zoo Atlanta said its 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.”

The  Zoetis vaccine made specifically for animals has arrived at Zoo Atlanta will be used to vaccinate its Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran tigers, African lions, and clouded leopard. As the gorillas recover, they will also receive the vaccine. Zoo Atlanta’s use of the Zoetis vaccine has been authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Georgia’s State Veterinarian.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley is the editor of Atlanta Intown.