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Members of a gorilla troop at San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido have tested positive for COVID-19. This is the first known case of non-human primates with the virus. Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo Safari Park
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Gorillas at San Diego Zoo Safari Park test positive for COVID-19

ESCONDIDO – Members of a gorilla troop at San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido tested positive for COVID-19, the park confirmed Monday, marking the first known case of the coronavirus infecting non-human primates.

Several gorillas were tested after two of them began coughing on Wednesday, Jan. 6. The zoo tested fecal samples from the gorillas with the help of the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL).

It is unclear exactly how many gorillas tested positive for the virus, however, the zoo confirmed that there are eight gorillas in the troop and all of them were exposed to it.

During a press conference Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that two gorillas have tested positive for the virus and that a third is showing COVID-19 symptoms.

“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” said Lisa Peterson, executive director at San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”

The park suspects that the gorillas acquired the infection from a staff member who tested positive more than a week ago but was asymptomatic. The zoo said that all staff members were following all recommended precautions including COVID-19 safety protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as wearing personal protective equipment when near the gorillas.

Studies have shown that some non-human primates are susceptible to COVID-19, but this is the first known instance of natural transmission to great apes and it is unknown if they will have any serious reaction.

“For almost one year our team members have been working tirelessly, with the utmost determination to protect each other and the wildlife in our care from this highly contagious virus,” said Peterson. “The safety of our staff and the wildlife in our care remains our number one priority.”

According to the CDC, dogs, cats and other animals can also be infected by the coronavirus, often after close contact with people. In fact, a number of studies have investigated non-human primates as models for human infection.

However, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus.

The CDC recommends that people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife.

The zoo and Safari Park have been closed to the public since Dec. 6.