Group of Coughing Gorillas Test Positive for COVID at Atlanta Zoo

A group of coughing gorillas with runny noses have tested positive for COVID-19 at Zoo Atlanta. It is suspected they caught the virus from a worker.

Thirteen western lowland gorillas at the zoo tested positive, leaving senior staff "very concerned" over the situation.

The animals' minders decided to test the primates, of which there are 20 living in four groups, after noticing "coughing, nasal discharge, and minor changes in appetite."

After the results came back, the zoo theorized the gorillas contracted the virus from a worker who had also tested positive.

In a statement issued on Friday, Zoo Atlanta said the infected staff member was wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), has been fully vaccinated, and was asymptomatic while working.

Sam Rivera, the zoo's senior director of animal health, said: "The teams are very closely monitoring the affected gorillas and are hopeful they will make a complete recovery. They are receiving the best possible care, and we are prepared to provide additional supportive care should it become necessary.

"We are very concerned that these infections occurred, especially given that our safety protocols when working with great apes and other susceptible animal species are, and throughout the pandemic have been, extremely rigorous."

Zoo officials said the level of PPE used around the primates was similar to what would be seen in a hospital.

"The infections occurred in an area of the Zoo where COVID safety protocols are already at their most stringent. The use of PPE when working with great apes was already a standard practice at Zoo Atlanta due to their susceptibility to many of the same illnesses experienced by humans, including the common cold and influenza," they added.

Despite the positive result and initial transmission, it's not thought gorillas are able to pass the virus on to humans. "Zoo Atlanta visitors do not pose a transmission threat to the gorillas or vice versa given the distance between the areas used by guests and the animals' habitats," the statement clarified.

After spotting symptoms among the group, oral, nasal and fecal swabs were analyzed by the Athens Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Georgia, and they're now being sent to National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for confirmation.

The zoo is collecting samples from the entire gorilla population, and will continue to test them regardless of the presence of symptoms. The zoo confirmed it will be treating gorillas "at risk of developing complications" with monoclonal antibodies.

As the gorillas recover, they'll be given the Zoetis vaccine, approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), specially developed for animals to tackle the SARS-COV-2 infection.

Along with the gorillas, the zoo's Bornean and Sumatran orangutans will also receive the vaccine. The Sumatran tigers, African lions, and clouded leopard will also be given a dose.

File photo of a gorilla.
File photo of a male Silverback Western Lowland gorilla, A group of 13 primates have tested positive for COVID at Atlanta Zoo. JWJarrett/Getty Images