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Gorillas infected with coronavirus at San Diego Zoo, human transmission suspected

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 1/12/2021 By Dustin Gardiner

SACRAMENTO — A coronavirus outbreak among gorillas at the San Diego Zoo suggests humans can transmit the disease to some of their closest primate relatives.

At least two gorillas at the San Diego Zoo have tested positive for the virus and multiple others could be infected, zoo officials said Monday. It’s the first known case of natural transmission to great apes, the branch of primates most closely related to humans.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said state health officials are researching how it happened and possible implications for people.

“We’re currently confirming the source of the infection and the strain,” Newsom said during a news conference in Sacramento County. “There is some question, did it come (from) human to animal? It’s being determined.”

The gorillas are suspected to have contracted the virus after interacting with an asymptomatic park worker, though the staffer wore protective equipment and followed other safety precautions, according to the zoo.

“Even with all those precautions, we have an exposure that we think happened with that team member,” Lisa Peterson, executive director at the zoo, said in a video statement.

“As we’ve seen in the public, this virus has been very, very tricky,” she said. “We know that it’s evolving, it’s changing, and the best that we can do for humans and wildlife is just to ensure that... we remain nimble.”

Peterson told the Associated Press that eight gorillas that live together at the park are thought to have the virus. Zoo officials did not give the precise number of infected gorillas in their statement.

Charles Chiu, director of viral diagnostics at UCSF, said it’s unclear if the infected gorillas have spread the virus among themselves or whether a zoo handler gave it to all of them.

He said that’s the key question for researchers. If the virus is capable of spreading within more species, Chiu said, it would drastically complicate efforts to eradicate the virus because it could evolve separately in an animal population.

“Then you can have an ongoing source of infection, and ongoing source of new variants that in turn can be transmitted back to humans,” Chiu said. “It’s very worrisome.”

People can help prevent that from happening by being vaccinated as quickly as possible and taking public-health measures to slow the spread of the virus, including measures to prevent spread to animals.

“We have to do everything possible to try to get community-wide herd immunity,” Chiu said. “There’s a lot of potential for bad outcomes if this pandemic is allowed to continue.”

Fecal samples from the San Diego Zoo gorillas were tested last week after two animals began coughing. The National Veterinary Services Laboratories at the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the results Monday.

“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” Peterson said in a statement. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”

Since the outset of the pandemic, Peterson said, the zoo’s staff has “been working tirelessly, with the utmost determination to protect each other and the wildlife in our care from this highly contagious virus.”

Newsom said the status of the gorillas was of particular concern to his four young children, given “our love for animals.”

“What tends to resonate in my house, I want to make public to you,” he said. “It’s an area that’s long been of concern — human-to animal-transmission. But our beloved gorillas, obviously, we are concerned about.”

Dustin Gardiner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dustin.gardiner@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @dustingardiner

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