COVID-19 in Animals

Nine Apes at San Diego Zoo Get COVID-19 Vaccine for Animals

Just like the two current vaccines meant for humans, the vaccine for animals is given in two doses, three weeks apart

Orangutan At The Zoo
Santi Visalli/Getty Images

A handful of great apes at the San Diego Zoo were recently vaccinated with an experimental COVID-19 drug meant for animals after an outbreak of COVID-19 infected the zoo's gorilla troop, officials confirmed Thursday.

Four members of the zoo's orangutan troop and five members of their bonobos troop are likely the first apes in the world to be vaccinated with a drug to protect against Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

None have shown any adverse reactions to the vaccine, a spokesperson for San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance said.

Zoo veterinarians began vaccinating the apes in January with the experimental two-dose vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company Zoetis specifically for animals, the zoo said. Just like the two current vaccines meant for humans, the vaccine for animals is given in two doses, three weeks apart. Apes will continue to receive doses of the vaccine in March.

The San Diego Zoo reached out to Zoetis to request the vaccine for emergency use after their eight-member gorilla troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park became infected with COVID-19 in January.

None of the gorillas were given the vaccine since veterinarians believe their immune systems have already developed antibodies to the virus, a spokesperson said.

Zoetis began developing a vaccine for animals in early 2020 after a dog in Hong Kong became infected with COVID-19, the first domestic animal to test positive. While Zoetis says a COVID-19 vaccine is not needed for cats and dogs at this time, researchers have applied that early work to help apes at the zoo on an experimental basis, Zoetis spokesperson Bill Price said.

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"We are proud to help the San Diego Zoo’s veterinary team with an experimental vaccine for emergency use in their Great Apes," Price said.

The San Diego Zoo wildlife team is the only zoo to currently be using Zoetis' experimental drug on animals. The drug is only available through a permit application through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for emergency use.

"While the vaccine is experimental in nature, the lessons from this experience could aid in the development of such vaccines in the future," Price said.

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