We're not the only apes who can catch COVID-19

Gorilla Troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park Test Positive for COVID-19
Posted at 6:29 PM, Jan 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-12 18:29:09-05

A pair of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo on Monday became the latest non-human animals to test positive for COVID-19, joining a list that includes tigers, lions, snow leopards and domestic dogs and cats.

San Diego Zoo officials believe the gorillas caught the sickness from an asymptomatic zookeeper, even though all zookeepers wear protective gear around the animals.

It’s a strange but worrying story with potentially far-reaching implications, Northern Kentucky University professor and primate expert Monica Wakefield said. Human diseases have a record of seriously impacting great apes, even in the wild.

“There's been lots of cases in the wild of large portions of populations being decimated because we gave a cold to them,” she said.

A story published by the African Conservation Foundation predicted the potential threat of COVID-19 to primates in March 2020. In the case of a transmissible disease, author Arend de Haas wrote, keeping a distance from wild apes isn’t just for human protection — it’s for the protection of the animal, too. Scientists recorded at least 18 outbreaks of human-originating respiratory disease among mountain gorilla populations in the 20-year period from 1990 to 2010.

“Just like we’re still adjusting to COVID, it could be very detrimental to them,” Wakefield said.

Scientists aren’t sure whether the sickness is as fatal in nonhuman species as it is for humans. If it is, veterinarians could face an unusual challenge.

There are no cases of COVID-19 in any animals at the Cincinnati Zoo. Director Thane Maynard said Tuesday that all keepers wear masks and protective equipment when interacting with the zoo’s apes.

“When the keepers are in the back with gorillas or with orangutans or with bonobos, who are all great apes like we are, they wear masks,” he said. “Our veterinarians give training regularly on zoonotic diseases.”