Gorillas at Zoo Atlanta are being treated after initial tests showed they were positive for the coronavirus — and the zoo plans to vaccinate them once they recover.
A care team recently noticed telltale signs: Several members of the zoo’s western lowland gorilla population were coughing, had runny noses and showed minor changes in their appetites.
After nasal, oral and fecal samples were sent for testing, the zoo received presumptive positive results indicating several gorillas had been infected by the virus that causes covid-19, the zoo said in a statement Friday.
Zoo officials said in the statement they were waiting for confirmation of the results after samples were sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa. Zoo Atlanta did not specify how many animals were sick, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 13 western lowland gorillas had shown presumptive positive results.
“The teams are very closely monitoring the affected gorillas and are hopeful they will make a complete recovery,” Sam Rivera, senior director of animal health at the zoo, said in the statement. “They are receiving the best possible care, and we are prepared to provide additional supportive care should it become necessary.”
A spokesperson for Zoo Atlanta did not immediately respond to questions from The Washington Post on Sunday about the affected gorillas.
The zoo is collecting samples to test its whole gorilla population and plans to regularly test the gorillas regardless of their symptoms, it said in the statement. Because the gorillas live together in proximity, it is not possible to isolate the affected population members, Rivera said, according to the Journal-Constitution. There are 20 gorillas in the population that live in four troops.
The gorillas “at risk of developing complications” from the virus are being treated with monoclonal antibodies, the zoo said. As they recover, the next step will be to vaccinate them with a shot developed for animals.
More animals across the country have been receiving vaccine doses, as zoos respond to and try to prevent coronavirus outbreaks among animal populations.
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance said in March that a group of great apes received an experimental vaccine for animals developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis. The San Diego Zoo staff began administering doses of the vaccine after a gorilla troop there became infected. Separately, in July, a 9-year-old male snow leopard at the zoo that had not yet been vaccinated tested positive for the virus.
The Oakland Zoo administered the Zoetis vaccine over the summer to its tigers, bears, mountain lions and ferrets in an effort to proactively protect the animals against the virus.
Zoo Atlanta said it had received the green light from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Georgia’s state veterinarian to administer the Zoetis vaccine. The zoo said in its statement the doses had arrived, and it planned to vaccinate its Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran tigers, African lions and clouded leopard. Once the affected gorillas recover, the zoo said, they will get the vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the virus has been shown to infect mammals, and there have been documented reports around the world of animals, including pets and those in zoos and sanctuaries, being infected. The agency noted that most got the virus after contact with infected humans.
It’s not certain how the gorillas became sick, but the zoo said the virus may have been passed on by a fully vaccinated team member who cares for them. The team member was asymptomatic and wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE, at work, the zoo said.
The use of PPE when working with great apes was “already a standard practice at Zoo Atlanta due to their susceptibility to many of the same illnesses experienced by humans, including the common cold and influenza,” the zoo noted.
The zoo said it’s not concerned about any risk for Zoo Atlanta visitors “given the distance between the areas used by guests and the animals’ habitats.” The CDC notes that the risk of animals spreading the coronavirus to people is considered low.
“We are very concerned that these infections occurred,” Rivera added in the statement, “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.”