San Diego Zoo’s Great Apes Receive First Experimental Covid-19 Vaccine for Animals

Five bonobos and four orangutans were treated with a synthetic form of the virus

A bonobo is shown sitting in the grass with it's hand resting on their knee
The vaccine developed by the veterinary pharmaceutical company, Zoetis, was provided to the San Diego Zoo after they requested help in vaccinating other apes when several gorillas tested positive for COVID-19 in January. Fanny Schertzer via Wikicommons under (CC BY 3.0)

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has vaccinated several apes with an experimental Covid-19 vaccine intended for pets, making the animals the first non-human primates to be vaccinated, reports Rachael Rettner for Live Science.

The vaccine, developed by the veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis, was provided to the San Diego Zoo after they requested help in vaccinating other apes when several gorillas tested positive for Covid-19 in January, reports James Gorman for the New York Times. The gorillas were the first known great apes in the world to test positive for coronavirus.

"This isn't the norm. In my career, I haven't had access to an experimental vaccine this early in the process and haven't had such an overwhelming desire to want to use one," says Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation, and wildlife health officer for San Diego Zoo Global, to Natasha Daly for National Geographic.

Despite being an experimental vaccine, Lamberski decided that vaccinating the safari park and zoo's apes was worth the risk, reports National Geographic. Infections among apes are a primary concern for conservationists and zoos because they are vulnerable to human diseases and viruses, which can cause deadly outbreaks among populations, reports the New York Times. Scientists have also shown concern about the virus lying dormant in animal populations and potentially reemerging later and infecting humans again, the New York Times reports.

At San Diego zoo facilities, there are 14 gorillas, eight bonobos, and four orangutans living indoors, which leaves them more prone to the spread of Covid-19 infection, reports National Geographic. To help prevent disease spread among the apes, veterinarians with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance selected five bonobos and four orangutans to receive the experimental vaccine, reports Stella Chan and Scottie Andrew for CNN. The selected apes were deemed the most at risk. One of the vaccinated orangutans was Karen, an ape that first made headlines in 1994 for being the first orangutan to have open-heart surgery, the New York Times reports.

Zoetis's vaccine works similarly to the Novavax vaccine for humans by giving recipients of the vaccine a synthetic form of the Covid-19's spike protein that will prime and alert immune systems to fight infection, reports Live Science. To confirm if the vaccine was effective, blood will be drawn from the apes to look for the presence of antibodies. By February, the apes had received two doses of the vaccine, and no adverse reactions occurred within the apes, reports National Geographic. The gorillas previously infected with coronavirus will eventually receive the vaccine but are not a priority because they have since recovered, reports the New York Times.

Various other zoos have already requested doses of Zoetis's vaccine. The pharmaceutical company expects to have more quantities available by June, increasing their production to use for mink once they receive commercial approval, reports National Geographic.

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