In California, like other states, officials have come up with a priority list of COVID-19 vaccination recipients: healthcare workers, long-term care residents, elderly people, endangered apes — wait a minute, did the bonobos and orangutans at the San Diego Zoo just jump the line? No, they’re the first great apes to receive an experimental COVID-19 vaccine made specifically for animals.
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After some of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s gorillas tested positive in January, zoo keepers were worried. The IUCN Red List includes all gorilla species in the endangered or critically endangered categories. “Susceptibility to disease” is cited as one of the main dangers. Gorillas live in family groups, like many people, so infections can quickly spread.
The decision to vaccinate was not made lightly. “This isn’t the norm,” said Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, as reported by National Geographic. “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.”
Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company, developed the vaccine. Last month, the San Diego Zoo used it to vaccinate five bonobos and four orangutans. Bonobos are endangered, and orangutans are critically endangered. The zoo also plans to vaccinate one gorilla. Because many of the zoo’s gorillas have already recovered from COVID-19, they’re considered lower priority than some of the other primates.
At first, Zoetis was developing the vaccine for use in cats and dogs, the only animals it has been tested on. But when COVID-19 broke out in farmed mink populations last year, the company shifted its focus to mink. The vaccine is similar to the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine produced for humans. The USDA has not yet approved the experimental vaccine for animal use in the U.S.
So far, the vaccinated apes seem to be doing fine. Soon they’ll be checked for antibodies. For Karen, one of the orangutans, making medical headlines is nothing new. In 1994, she was the world’s first orangutan to have open-heart surgery.
Image via Oleg