San Diego Zoo reports suspected COVID-19 case in snow leopard


A snow leopard at the San Diego Zoo is suspected of having the coronavirus, a diagnosis that — if confirmed — would mark the second species to have contracted the disease at the zoo this year, officials said Friday.

The presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, was detected in fecal samples collected from a male snow leopard. The test was conducted after the big cat experienced symptoms including cough and nasal discharge on Thursday, a San Diego Zoo news release stated.

After the initial results, the samples were sent to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, where tests also came back positive. The result was then sent as required to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories, which will have to confirm the positive test.

The snow leopard has exhibited no other symptoms and appears to be doing well, according to zoo officials.

A female snow leopard and two Amur leopards who share his habitat are in quarantine due to the assumed exposure. The animals are all being monitored closely by veterinarians; officials have also temporarily closed off the animals’ habitat to visitors.

“While we await the results of tests to determine if the snow leopard is positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, we can assure you the snow leopard and the Amur leopards who share his habitat are receiving excellent care,” Dwight Scott, the zoo’s executive director, said in the release.

It’s unknown how the snow leopard became infected. On top of the zoo’s usual biosecurity protocols, additional safety measures have been in place at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to help slow the virus’ spread.

But transmission has still occurred even with the heightened protocols — something that highlights the challenges of stopping the highly contagious virus, Scott said.

In January, a troop of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for the coronavirus, which they contracted from a wildlife care specialist who was asymptomatic. All of the gorillas have since fully recovered.

At the time of their diagnosis, the infections were believed be the first cases of COVID-19 in great apes in the U.S., the Associated Press reported.

A COVID-19 vaccine exists for use in animals and the zoo is in the process of inoculating the ones at their facilities “as quickly as can responsibly be done,” the release stated.

The snow leopard suspected of acquiring the infection had not received the vaccine yet.

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