San Diego Zoo Apes Get an Experimental Covid Vaccine

The San Diego Zoo gave nine monkeys an experimental coronavirus vaccine developed by Zoetis, a large veterinary drug company.

In January, a group of gorillas in the zoo’s Safari Park tested positive for the virus. Everyone is recovering, but the Zoo asked Zoetis for help vaccinating other monkeys. The company provided an experimental vaccine that was originally developed for pets and is now being tested in mink.

Nadine Lamberski, conservation officer and animal health officer at San Diego Zoo Global, said the zoo vaccinated four orangutans and five bonobos with the experimental vaccine, which is not intended for use in humans. Among the orangutans vaccinated was a monkey named Karen, who made history when she became the first orangutan to undergo open heart surgery in 1994.

Dr. Lamberski said a gorilla in the zoo should also be vaccinated, but the gorillas in the wildlife park had a lower priority because they had already tested positive for infections and had recovered. She said she would vaccinate the gorillas in the wildlife park when the zoo received more doses of the vaccine.

Mahesh Kumar, senior vice president of global biologics at Zoetis, said the company is increasing production, largely due to the pursuit of a license for a mink vaccine, and will provide more doses to San Diego and other zoos if possible. “We have already received a number of inquiries,” he said.

Infection in monkeys is a major concern for zoos and conservationists. They are easily susceptible to human respiratory infections and the common cold virus has caused fatal outbreaks in chimpanzees in Africa. Genomic research has shown chimpanzees, gorillas and other monkeys are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the pandemic. Laboratory researchers use some monkeys, like macaques, to test drugs and vaccines and develop new therapies for the virus.

Updated

March 5, 2021, 11:10 a.m. ET

Scientists are concerned not only about the threat the virus poses to great apes and other animals, but also about the potential of the virus to enter a wildlife population that could become a permanent reservoir and emerge at a later date around the world Re-infecting people.

Infections with mink farms have caused the greatest horror so far. When Danish mink farms were destroyed by the virus, which can kill mink as well as humans, a mutated form of the virus emerged from the mink and re-infected people. This variant has shown resistance to some antibodies in laboratory studies, suggesting that vaccines may be less effective against them.

According to the World Health Organization, this virus variant has not been found in humans since November. However, other variants have emerged in people in several countries, proving that the virus can become more contagious and, in some cases, affect the effectiveness of some vaccines.

Denmark killed up to 17 million minks, wiping out its mink farming industry. Thousands of minks have died in the United States, and one wild mink tested positive for the virus.

Although many animals, including dogs, domestic cats, and big cats in zoos, have been infected with the virus through natural spread and others have been infected in laboratory experiments, scientists say widespread testing has found the virus in no animal in any animal other than the one mink .

National Geographic first reported on vaccinating the monkeys at the San Diego Zoo.

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