Nine apes receive experimental animal Covid-19 vaccine at San Diego Zoo, opening door to pets

The apes are the first non-human primates to receive a vaccine for Covid-19.

Updated: March 5, 2021 - 1:22pm

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San Diego Zoo officials have announced that nine great apes have been inoculated with an experimental animal Covid-19 vaccine after some had contracted the virus in January through an asymptomatic employee. 

Animal coronavirus vaccines have existed for many years. But the animal health care company Zoetis, once a part of Pfizer, is focusing on the development of a specifically SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for animals.

Minks, cats and dogs have been receiving the new vaccine under experimental testing. Zookeepers became worried that other apes were in danger when the eight gorillas contracted the virus, and Zoetis had extra doses to share. 

"That made us realize that our other apes were at risk," said Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. "We wanted to do our best to protect them from this virus because we don’t really know how it’s going to impact them."

Four orangutans and five bonobos have so far received the Zoetis vaccination with plans in place to vaccinate more soon. Although tests are ongoing, the zoo decided the risks associated with the vaccine outweigh the dangers of contracting the virus 

According to the San Diego Union Tribune, the vaccines are "voluntary," meaning the animal must willingly sit still and allow the zookeeper to inject the shot. 

"This is a really precious opportunity to observe what happens to endangered great apes when they’re vaccinated to a potentially important disease," UC San Diego zoologist Pascal Gagneux said. "Nothing prevents COVID-19 from starting to infect the wild populations."

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