San Diego Zoo gorillas contract COVID-19, raising alarms for great apes in the wild

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Jan. 14, 2021

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A mountain gorilla mother and her baby in the wild in Rwanda. Great apes "are important not just to ecosystems but to giving us insights into understanding our own selves and our evolutionary past," says Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie.

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The news that some members of the gorilla troop at the San Diego Zoo have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 ramps up the urgency for protecting great apes in the wild from exposure, warns Thomas Gillespie, an Emory disease ecologist. 

“This first known transmission to apes confirms what we strongly suspected — that one of our closest living relatives is susceptible to the novel coronavirus,” says Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Rollins School of Public Health. “More than ever, it’s a race against time. If gorillas in the wild become infected it will be a much more dangerous scenario because we won’t have the ability to contain it.” 

In March, Gillespie co-authored a Nature commentary warning that non-human great apes are susceptible to human respiratory diseases and that COVID-19 could prove devastating to animals on the brink of extinction.

The non-human great apes include chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, which live in equatorial Africa, and orangutans, which are native to the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists chimpanzees and bonobos as endangered species, while gorillas and orangutans are critically endangered. 

Even exposure to viruses that have mild effects in people, such as those causing the common cold, have been associated with mortality events in wild primates. 

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park reported that it conducted tests for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, after two of its gorillas began coughing. On January 11, the test results confirmed the presence of the virus in some of its gorillas, the zoo announced in a release, adding that it suspects that the virus was transmitted by an asymptomatic staff member, despite the strict prevention protocols in place.

Great apes, in particular, are at risk from many human diseases due to our close relationship. Chimpanzees and bonobos are our nearest living relatives, sharing about 99 percent of human DNA, while gorillas are our next closest relatives, sharing 98 percent of our DNA. 

The great apes also share key sites within the ACE2 receptor protein with humans that allow SARS-CoV-2 to bind onto cells and infect them. 

Gillespie is a member of an IUCN task force focused on mitigating the impact of COVID on great apes and other primates. He is working with governments and organizations in Africa, including the Jane Goodall Institute, to provide scientifically-informed guidance on protecting wild apes during the pandemic as tourism, research and other activities that lead to human-ape overlap resume. The IUCN Save Our Species Program provided funding to support communities impacted by the loss of great ape tourism, to help prevent people from resorting to poaching animals or logging their habitats. Some of those funds are set to run out soon. 

Gillespie’s lab is also developing a spatially-explicit model to investigate key factors that may affect the spread of the virus among wild primates, so that governments and organizations can prioritize efforts to protect the animals. 

“What’s happened in San Diego has brought the pandemic risks for great apes back into the spotlight,” Gillespie says. “Great apes are our closest relatives and many of them are critically endangered, on the verge of extinction. We’ve gained a lot of insights into our own health and biology by studying these animals. They are important not just to ecosystems but to giving us insights into understanding our own selves and our evolutionary past.”