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San Diego Zoo Gorillas Contract COVID-19; First Known Transmission In Great Apes

 January 12, 2021 at 10:17 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 Congestion and a cough or some of the mild symptoms of gorillas who have tested positive for COVID-19. The virus has infected two primates at the San Diego zoo, Safari park and zoo officials suspect a third gorilla may also be infected here's Safari park, executive director, Lisa Peterson. Speaker 2: 00:19 We allow them to tell us what's happening through behavior and through what we see. And then we will intervene if needed based on the symptoms that, that show themselves. Um, at this point, fortunately, the, the symptoms that we're seeing are, are what we would consider mild. Okay. Speaker 1: 00:35 This is the first known instance of natural transmission to great apes in the U S so what does this mean for the virus and its ability to jump species? Joining me is Janessa. Jellema head veterinarian at the Sacramento zoo and assistant professor of zoological medicine at UC Davis veterinary school. Janessa, thanks for joining us. Speaker 2: 00:56 It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting Speaker 1: 00:58 Me. Hey, so when you heard about the positive cases among gorillas at the San Diego zoo, were you surprised? Speaker 2: 01:06 I was not, uh, entirely shocked. Um, so gorillas are one of the key BC that we were concerned might be susceptible to Corona virus, even since the beginning of the outbreaks. Most of the zoological health professionals have been concerned that we might end up seeing, um, you know, Corona virus in this species. So, um, while, you know, we've put in measures, uh, to, to kind of keep these species safe. Um, it, it doesn't shock me that we have after this long period of time of struggling with the virus, um, in the human population, it is not surprising to me that we have now seen a case that has come up in a, in a great day. Speaker 1: 01:48 What do we know about how gorillas may be affected by Corona virus? Speaker 2: 01:52 Since this is the first time we're seeing Corona virus in our gorilla population, we do not know at this time how severe the infection might manifest. Um, and so I am sure that the, uh, team of veterinarians who are incredible over at San Diego zoo Safari park, um, are going to be monitoring that gorilla troop very closely, uh, for any development of more severe clinical signs. It sounds like right now, the gorillas are having very mild symptoms or signs, but, uh, certainly as we all know, complications can occur. And, uh, I know that they are going to be very vigilant as things move forward and hopefully we'll gain more clues, uh, as we watched this group, um, and how they end up dealing with this infection, you know, that will give us more clues as to what kinds of signs and symptoms maybe, uh, other great apes might be susceptible to or other gorilla, Speaker 1: 02:53 You know, and how will these cases inform what you do at your zoo up in Sacramento? I would say Speaker 2: 03:00 While this makes me a little bit more alert and concerned for our great apes that we house at the Sacramento zoo, while we don't have gorillas, we do have a ring attends and chimpanzees with her also, you know, kind of in that same group. And so we all are concerned about their health with that being said, since the beginning of this pandemic, um, we've been very cautious and have implemented a variety of different, uh, protective and safety measures to try to prevent infection in this group of animals. So, um, and that has been ongoing since, you know, early last year, um, before we even started seeing the community spread, uh, in the United States. So, um, and most of that is adapted from what we know about communication of the disease in humans, um, and we've adapted that to our animals. So, um, you know, there's a delicate balance that we have to strike between, um, you know, maintaining the behaviors and managing those animals and providing them exceptional health care and exposing them to, uh, potential diseases. So, um, so we're trying to strike that perfect balance by, um, you know, keeping socially distance from them, um, while still monitoring them very closely for the development of signs. And then also trying to maintain appropriate, uh, safety for our keeper staff, so that we minimize the possibility and risks associated with transfer of disease from our keeper staff to our collection. Speaker 1: 04:38 And, and it's a very delicate balance. I mean, the gorillas at the San Diego zoo are believed to have gotten the virus from an asymptomatic staff member despite following precautions. So, you know, will you be, re-evaluating the precautions taken at your zoo, given the cases here in San Diego? Speaker 2: 04:54 Yeah, so, um, you know, we are always re-evaluating whether we can do things better. Um, you know, I do think that, uh, our current recommendations and what we put in place to protect our animals has, um, so far been working relatively well. Um, but it's important to maintain vigilance. And I think sometimes when you're dealing with, uh, you know, something long lasting over the course of months, or, you know, we're, we're going into our second year here of, of dealing with this pandemic, you know, uh, reminding people that we need to be as vigilant as ever, even though we know that vaccines are right around the corner is really critically important to maintaining that safety and protection for our animal collection. Um, I would also express that these zoo community is very communicative. Um, we definitely partner together to try to help each other. Um, and so we do have recommendations from our species survival plan veterinarians to help with great ape safety protocols and establish some baseline measures that all zoos, um, should try to implement in order to protect their gorillas from infections. Speaker 1: 06:13 And from where you sit, are there any larger implications, uh, about maybe how this virus spreads given that it's jumped a species here? Speaker 2: 06:22 I think we don't have all the answers yet. Uh, so this was just recently diagnosed and I'm sure there's a lot more information we can glean. Um, once we evaluate the, the specific strain that is in these, this guerrilla group. Um, but I don't think we can jump to conclusions here about, you know, any changes to the virus or, you know, changes with, uh, or mutations in the virus that have made it, um, more likely to spread or, um, infect different species. Um, I think what is more likely is that with our increase in human cases, in the United States, that we'd have increased risk of exposure and unintended exposure to our collections that we're trying to keep safe. Uh, so I think that is a more likely explanation, but I think there's a lot more I'm thinking we need to do to, you know, the Anthropocene Speaker 1: 07:22 I've been speaking with Janessa, Jellema head veterinarian at the Sacramento zoo, Janessa. Thank you so much for joining us. Speaker 2: 07:29 Thank you so much anytime.

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Several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have tested positive for the coronavirus in what is believed to be the first cases among such primates in captivity.
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