Apes at San Diego Zoo Get Experimental Animal Vaccine for COVID-19

The Doctors

Humans are not the only ones getting protection from COVID-19.

National Geographic reports 4 orangutans and five bonobos at the San Diego Zoo have been given 2 doses of an experimental animal vaccine to protect them from the virus. One of the orangutans, named Karen, is famous for being the first orangutan to have open-heart surgery in 1994.

To vaccinate the apes, zoo staff distracted the animals with treats while giving them the shots.

Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, says the apes did not have any adverse reactions to the vaccine and all of them are doing well. 

The wildlife expert says it is not uncommon for zoo animals to get vaccines and Nadine explains apes at the San Diego Zoo get human flu and measles vaccines and vaccines that are designed for dogs and cats are used on lions and tigers.

She tells National Geographic there is a level of risk using the experimental vaccine on the animals, but a great deal of thought and consideration was made. “It’s not like we randomly grab a vaccine and give it to a novel species. A lot of thought and research goes into it—what’s the risk of doing it and what’s the risk of not doing it. Our motto is, above all, to do no harm,” she says.

The zoo plans on using their extra animal vaccine -- developed by veterinary pharmaceuticals company Zoetis -- on other bonobos and a gorilla. Early this year, eight gorillas at the zoo contracted COVID (reportedly from a staff member) and 1 of the animals - a 49-year-old silverback named Winston - reportedly developed heart disease and pneumonia. After undergoing an experimental antibody treatment, Winston is recovering, as are the other infected gorillas. 

The veterinary pharmaceuticals company is currently researching how well the vaccine might work on other animals like dogs and cats, as much is still unknown about how the virus might affect animals. So far, there are confirmed reports of infections in tigers, lions, mink, snow leopards, cougars, a ferret, dogs, and domestic cats.

More: Child COVID-19 Vaccine: Johnson & Johnson Shot Likely by September

More: After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine, Here's What Is Safer to Do

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