Orangutans and Bonobos At US Zoo Are First Great Apes To Get COVID-19 Vaccine

Orangutans and bonobos at San Diego Zoo are having the vaccine after gorillas tested positive for COVID-19 in January. Image credit: indranilc/Shutterstock.com

It isn’t just humans lining up to receive their vaccination against COVID-19, some of our closet evolutionary relatives are also getting their shot and generating those sweet, sweet antibodies. 

A bunch of great apes at San Diego Zoo have become the first non-humans to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, told National Geographic that four orangutans and five bonobos at San Diego Zoo have received two doses each of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine for animals. This gang of primates includes a Sumatran orangutan named Karen who made history in 1994 after becoming the first orangutan to have open-heart surgery.

Back in January 2021, eight western lowland gorillas at San Diego Safari Park became the first great apes in the world to test positive for SARS-CoV-2. Some of the gorillas showed symptoms including mild coughing, congestion, nasal discharge, and intermittent lethargy, but one of the older individualsnamed Winston, fell seriously ill and had to be treated with heart medications, antibiotics, and monoclonal antibody therapy. This small outbreak sounded the alarm bells and the Zoo started to investigate whether vaccinating their vulnerable animals could be a viable option to prevent further illnesses. 

Winston and the troop are still recovering, but by spring San Diego Zoo is looking to vaccinate all of its great apes and, all being well, they’re in the process of considering their big cats too. 

The animal vaccine is different from the COVID-19 vaccines being received by humans. San Diego Zoo said earlier this year they were in possession of a recombinant purified spike protein vaccine, which had been specifically designed to protect animals against SARS-CoV-2, and were looking for suitable animal candidates to receive the shot. National Geographic reports the vaccine was developed by Zoetis, a US-based pharmaceutical company that is the world's largest producer of medicine and vaccinations for pets and livestock.

The risk of COVID-19 in non-human animals is hazy, but it’s clear that it's possible for many mammal species to contract the disease. Along with the gorillas, cases of COVID-19 have been documented in a number of species, including cats, dogs, tigers, and minks.

Some of the biggest concerns, in fact, have previously focused on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in captive mink populations at fur farms. In November 2020, the Danish government announced it planned to cull its entire mink population of up to 17 million animals after scientists found at least 12 people in the country have been infected with a mutated variant of SARS-CoV-2 that’s been found in five mink fur farms in the north of the country.

Zoetis, the pharma company behind the vaccine recently used at San Diego Zoo, has said it's also working on a vaccine solution that can potentially be used in mink in light of this problem.

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