Atlanta zoo sees COVID-19 outbreak among lowland gorillas

JoJo, an 33-year-old western lowland gorilla and sits in his habitat at the Brookfield Zoo's Tropic World exhibit. Gorillas like him have been at risk of being infected with COVID-19, which happened at Zoo Atlanta. Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI

Sept. 13 (UPI) — More than a dozen lowland gorillas at Zoo Atlanta have tested positive for COVID-19.

Zoo officials said Friday that several gorillas were tested after staff observed the primates with coughs, runny noses and changes in appetite. Staff collected and sent fecal, nasal and oral swab samples to the Athens Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Georgia, which tested positive for COVID-19.

Thirteen of the gorillas tested positive for the virus, reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sam Rivera, senior director of animal health at Zoo Atlanta, told the paper that Atlanta’s gorillas are the second group of great apes to be infected with the virus after a troop of eight were infected at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in January.

Among those infected is Ozzie, a 350-pound silverback who is one of the world’s oldest living male gorillas at around age 60, reports the local Fox affiliate.

“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,” Rivera said in the 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.”

The zoo said there is no evidence to suggest that animals can transmit the virus to humans.

While Zoo Atlanta is unsure how the animals acquired the virus, the zoo said in a statement that veterinary teams believe it came from a COVID-19-positive staff member. The staff member is fully vaccinated, was wearing personal protective equipment and was asymptomatic when reporting to work, according to the statement.

The zoo has a total of 20 gorillas that are divided into four troops, the Journal-Constitution reports. Members of every troop have shown signs of infection, and all will be tested because they live in close proximity and can’t be isolated.

Zoo Atlanta has received Zoetis, a COVID-19 vaccine made for animals. The zoo said it will vaccinate its Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran tigers, African lions and clouded leopard. The gorillas will receive the vaccine after they recover.


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