(SCIENCE MAG) – When two gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park started to cough last Wednesday, veterinarians tested their fecal samples and found RNA from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. All eight gorillas in the troop have been exposed and several are now exhibiting mild symptoms, such as coughing and congestion, according to an announcement from zoo officials yesterday. (A separate report on Twitter claiming that gorillas in the Houston Zoo were also sick with the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, turned out to be incorrect.)
The news from San Diego quickly reverberated among primatologists who study endangered great apes in the wild, where human respiratory viruses are already the leading cause of death in several chimp communities and cause 20% of sudden deaths in mountain gorillas in Africa. The infection of the western lowland gorillas in San Diego confirms what the scientists suspected – that apes can get sick from SARS-CoV-2 because the ape form of the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptor that the virus uses to enter cells is identical to the human one. The new evidence validates the measures taken so far to protect gorillas in their natural habitats, researchers say.
"The fact that gorillas are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 should come as no surprise," says disease ecologist Tony Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Fortunately, gorillas at zoos have excellent medical care, and most will likely pull through due to the efforts of dedicated veterinarians. That's not the case for gorillas in the wild, though."