Nine great apes at San Diego Zoo vaccinated for COVID-19

Orangutan at San Diego Zoo, photo: James Lee on Unsplash
Orangutan at San Diego Zoo, photo: James Lee on Unsplash

Nine great apes at the San Diego Zoo in the United States are the world’s first non-human animals to be vaccinated against COVID-19, zoo officials said on Thursday.

Four orangutans and five bonobos were vaccinated. They received two doses of an experimental vaccine originally designed for dogs and cats.

So far, the animals have not shown any harmful reactions to the vaccine and they are doing well, zoo spokeswoman Darla Davis said in an email to Reuters.

Zoo officials went ahead with the shots because they were concerned about the animals’ wellbeing after eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park fell ill with COVID-19 in January.

The eight gorillas have since improved and appear to be on their way to a full recovery, Davis said. They got the virus from an asymptomatic staff member.

A 48-year-old male silverback named Winston, who suffered from pneumonia and heart disease, was treated with different medications, including a coronavirus antibody therapy for non-humans.

The gorillas were not vaccinated because veterinarians assumed their immune systems had already developed antibodies to the virus.

The orangutans and bonobos selected for coronavirus vaccination were among the great apes at the zoo considered the most at risk of catching the virus. Staff vaccinated the animals by distracting them from the needle with treats.

Zoo staff began administering the shots to some of the animals in January and continued through February, with the last few given in March, Davis said.

One of the recipients was a 28-year-old female Sumatran orangutan named Karen who made headlines in 1994 when she became the first ape to undergo open-heart surgery at the zoo.

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