Two San Diego Zoo Gorillas Contract COVID-19; Mink Farms Hit Hard By the Virus

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

Last week, two gorillas at the San Diego Zoo were infected with COVID-19. An asymptomatic zoo staff member transmitted the disease to them.  So far they are fine, just experiencing coughing and congestion. This is the first known case of the coronavirus afflicting great apes, but it has been detected in a few other zoo animals.  One animal species hard hit globally by the virus is minks.  Here in the U.S., COVID-19 cases are confirmed at 16 mink farms in four states: twelve in Utah, one in Michigan, one in Oregon, and two in Wisconsin.  Farms in Europe performed mass culling, and while no mink farms here have culled their animals, thousands have died of COVID-19.

Why this Matters: The virus can mutate in animals and spread back to humans, producing newer —and potentially deadlier—variants of COVID-19, though this is rare. Danish mink farms produced a new strain of COVID named “Cluster 5” that has already infected at least twelve people. It is hard to control the spread of the disease in animals as well as humans, wreaking havoc on domestic animals and wild animal communities throughout the world.

COVID Spreads to Animals

These gorillas could pass the virus to the other members of their troop since they live in close contact within their enclosure.  And previous research suggests that other primates may also be susceptible. The gorillas began coughing last Wednesday, and it’s still unclear whether the gorillas will have a serious reaction. In a press release from the San Diego Zoo, Lisa Peterson, executive director of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, said “ Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well. The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”

Gorillas are not the only animals that have been affected by the coronavirus. Coronavirus has decimated mink populations throughout the world. The Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Lithuania, Greece, Canada, and the U.S. have all seen COVID-19 outbreaks among their farmed mink populations. On December 13, the USDA announced the first case of a non-captive wild animal with the coronavirus, a wild mink, raising new fears because the spread of the infection will be much more difficult to control in the wild. In addition to mink and gorillas, tigers, lions, dogs, ferrets, snow leopards, and household cats have all been infected with the virus.

This influx of infections in animals shows how interconnected our lives are with those of the animals that surround us. Across the country, the number of Americans diagnosed with COVID surpassed 22 million over the weekend, so we must be more careful than ever not to spread the virus to animals as well as our fellow humans.

To Go Deeper: The CDC suggests that it is rare for animals to spread COVID back to humans, but if you’re concerned about COVID spreading to your pets, be sure to keep them from interacting with strangers, and from roaming freely outside. See this page from the CDC for more details.

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