San Diego Zoo Great Apes Get the First COVID-19 Vaccine

Four orangutans and five bonobos became the first great apes to receive an experimental vaccine made for animals.
Fabienne Lang
Karen is one of the orangutans to receive the vaccineSan Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

News of the vaccine being administered to animals is promising given the virus has proven to spread to animals. There have been gorillas that contracted COVID-19 in January, as well as the minks in Denmark, and other species reportedly catching COVID-19. 

Aside from the concern over the animals' health, it's important to keep them safe given how close some of these captive animals live to humans. 

In promising news, four orangutans and five bonobos at the San Diego Zoo became the first great apes to receive an experimental COVID-19 vaccine made for animals in February, reports National Geographic.

The COVID-19 vaccine that was given to the San Diego apes, however, is not the same one humans are being administered.

The vaccine for animals

We have relatively little information about how the virus affects animals, with vets having to rely on limited data sets to try and cure them. 

The San Diego Zoo chose a COVID-19 vaccine developed for dogs and cats made by the veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis. Nadine Lamberskichief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, decided to take the risk and use this vaccine on the apes at the San Diego Zoo, reports National Geographic.

These nine apes may be the first known non-human primates to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S.

So far, the apes have shown no negative side effects to the vaccine, and the team will soon check whether or not they've developed antibodies, which would demonstrate the vaccine's effectiveness. 

With regards to using a vaccine developed for other animals, Lamberski noted it's quite common to give a vaccine tested for one species to another. This is because vaccines are made for a specific pathogen, and not a specific species, all of which comes down to safety testing. 

Mahesh Kumar, senior vice president of global biologics at Zoetis, told National Geographic that this animal vaccine works similarly to the human Novavax one — instead of using a live virus, it uses synthetic spike proteins to trigger antibodies. 

The San Diego Zoo team will continue to collect data and closely monitor the animals, so as to share the information, and increase safe vaccination for more animals around the world.


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