A number of orangutans, bonobos, and gorillas at the San Diego Zoo have been given an experimental COVID-19 vaccine after many of the great apes at the zoo got infected with coronavirus and became very ill. The vaccine was created specifically for animals by Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company, CBS News reports.
The chief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, Nadine Lamberski, said the animals were given two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at an interval of three weeks over the past two months. The great apes are the first animals in the world to get vaccinated with coronavirus shots, she said.
Lamberski said she is familiar with vaccinating animals for flu and measles among other diseases that affect humans, but this is the first time she would witness an experimental vaccine being given to animals within a short period of a new pandemic. She reported that the eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo are recovering fast from coronavirus infection after getting the vaccine shots.
Although animals such as lions, cats, tigers, dogs, and minks have been known to get infected with coronavirus, conservationists are more concerned for great apes because they are often categorized as endangered. Gorillas are even critically-endangered, and they are known to be vulnerable to many diseases that impact humans.
Since they live in large family groups, one sick gorilla can easily infect the others within a short space of time. Conservationists are particularly concerned for great apes such as orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees because an outbreak of disease among them can potentially annihilate their populations.
Zoetis began to create a coronavirus vaccine for domestic pets such as cats and dogs after one dog in Hong Kong got infected with the disease one year ago. After eight months of intense research and trials, the vaccine was judged safe for cats and dogs, but it remains unclear if it can be used for great apes or other animals.
“Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health,” a zoo official stated. “While thankfully a COVID-19 vaccine is not needed for cats and dogs at this time, we have applied our early development work to help the Great Apes at the San Diego Zoo and in other species on an experimental basis for emergency uses.”
Lamberski said vaccines are usually developed for one type of pathogen and this often means that a vaccine developed for one species can be administered to another, such as giving measles and flu vaccines made for humans to apes. To this end, many zoos in the United States have written to Zoetis to supply them with the COVID-19 vaccine so that they can administer it to great apes in their facilities.