Good news: Winston, the 49-year old western lowland gorilla who tested positive for COVID-19 at the San Diego Safari Park on January 11, 2021, is doing well. This silverback breeding male, the leader of his troop of eight who also tested positive, got “monoclonal antibody therapy” similar to the treatment given to some people. Monoclonal antibodies are a lab-made version of the body’s natural infection-fighting proteins and Winston’s vaccine was from a synthetic supply not permitted for human use. The antibodies may have contributed to his ability to overcome the virus according to Zoo veterinarians.
Winston’s and the troop’s diagnosis was the first known case of natural transmission of the virus to great apes. How? The supposition is that an asymptomatic staff member may have transmitted the disease even though wearing personal protective gear. Winston and the troop remain under observation as they recover from symptoms including mild coughing, congestion, runny noses, and low energy. The report is the group is eating, drinking, and interacting well. As to the other animals at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, veterinarians routinely vaccinate wildlife against a range of diseases and currently candidates are being identified for treatment with the Zoo’s limited supply of synthetic monoclonal antibodies.
In the wild in Africa’s Congo Basin and surrounding countries these critically endangered gorillas live as peaceful herbivores—except when threatened. When called to protect the troop, the dominant male stands up on two legs, slaps his chest, and roars to intimidate enemies. Think King Kong. Their average lifespan is 35 years but their population is dwindling, as are many animals, due to poaching and disease. With human care they, with Winston as an example, can live into their 50s. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is most certainly a wake-up call reminding us of our interrelationship with nature and animals and our need to protect all.
You can do your little bit to help. Simply recycle your old cellphone at the Zoo or the Park. Why? Cellphones are made with coltan, an ore that is mined in central Africa. To unearth the ore, illegal miners invade gorilla habitat including protected parks. For food, they hunt for and eat wild gorillas. Your recycling helps reduce the demand for coltan, thus fewer invasive miners kill gorillas and fewer phone parts and batteries clutter landfills.