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At least 13 gorillas at Zoo Atlanta have contracted COVID-19, according to initial test results.
The zoo shared the news on its website Friday, after staffers noticed some of the gorillas were demonstrating mild symptoms, including coughs, nasal discharges, and a slight loss of appetite. Shortly after the observations, the Animal Care and Veterinary Teams collected fecal samples as well as nasal and oral swabs from all 20 gorillas at the zoo. The samples were then sent to the University of Georgia, which returned presumptive positive results for SARS-CoV-2, the disease that causes COVID.
“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,” Sam Rivera, DVM, Senior Director of Animal Health, said in a statement. “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.”
Though it is unclear how the gorillas contracted the disease, Atlanta Zoo officials say they believe the infections may have originated from a COVID-positive staffer who was asymptomatic. The team member in question was reportedly fully vaccinated and wearing Personal Protective Equipment when dealing with the gorillas, suggesting she was unaware that she had been carrying the virus.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the infected apes include 60-year-old Ozzie, the oldest gorilla living at the zoo.
Zoo Atlanta said it has already been authorized to use Zoetis, a coronavirus vaccine made for animals susceptible to the virus. The zoo says it will use the vaccine on its gorilla population, as well as its Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran tigers, African lions, and clouded leopard.
“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,” the zoo wrote. “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.”