Update on Zoo Atlanta gorilla population
Zoo Atlanta has received presumptive positive test results indicating that members of its western lowland gorilla troops are positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Recently, Gorilla Care Team members observed coughing, nasal discharge, and minor changes in appetite in several members of the gorilla population. Upon the onset of these signs, the Animal Care and Veterinary Teams immediately pursued testing for SARS-CoV-2. 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.
The Veterinary Team, in consultation with veterinarians at other accredited zoological organizations with similar cases, 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.
While it cannot be known with certainty how the gorillas acquired the virus, the Animal Care and Veterinary Teams 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 infections occurred in an area of the Zoo where COVID safety protocols are already at their most stringent. 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. Although masks and gloves were already worn by the Gorilla Care Team when team members were inside the gorillas’ indoor areas or preparing outdoor habitats, additional preventive measures, such as N95 masks, Tyvek® suits, modified cleaning protocols and increased ventilation in the gorilla building, have been instituted. Team members never share the same physical space with the gorillas, and all interactions take place on opposite sides of a barrier with social distancing in place where practical. Team members also adhere to strict PPE protocols and social distancing guidelines among themselves, and PPE being used by the Gorilla Care Team is the same as what would be seen in human healthcare environments.
Zoo Atlanta has joined forces with many local, state and national experts in the medical, scientific, zoological and public health communities. These colleagues include professionals from the Georgia Department of Agriculture; Georgia Department of Public Health; University of Georgia Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory; San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance; The Rockefeller University; U.S. Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories; USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Great Ape Heart Project; Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; and the Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Zoo Atlanta had already been authorized to use and was on a waiting list to receive the Zoetis vaccine, a vaccine made specifically for animals which has been used for SARS-COV-2 susceptible species in other zoological organizations in North America. The vaccine has arrived, and Zoo Atlanta will 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.
Updates will continue to be provided as they are available.