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San Diego Zoo gorillas receive Covid vaccine for animals

Conservation chief stresses ‘overwhelming desire’ to protect gorillas, just 5,000 of which remain in the wild

Gino Spocchia
Thursday 04 March 2021 16:54
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A number of gorillas at San Diego Zoo have been given doses of an experimental Covid-19 vaccine, following infections among apes at a sister park.

A great ape who was the world’s first orangutan to undergo open-heart surgery in 1994, Karen, was among four orangutans and four bonobos who received shots of a vaccine in recent weeks, reported National Geographic.

The two-dose vaccine was developed by Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company that was founded as a subsidiary of Pfizer, whose vaccines for Covid-19 have been used worldwide.

Zoetis’s experimental vaccine had only been used on cats and dogs prior to the gorillas at San Diego Zoo being vaccinated, although animals in captivity usually receive the same doses, according to officials.

"We commonly use vaccines designed with dogs and cats for lions and tigers," Nadine Lamberski, the chief conservation and wildlife health officer for the San Diego Wildlife Alliance, said. "It's not like we randomly grab a vaccine and give it to a novel species.”

Read more: Gorillas at San Diego wildlife park stricken with Covid-19 after apparently being infected by zookeeper

There had been no adverse reactions among the animals, and they were doing well, Ms Lamberski said, and described the vaccinations as having been carried out relatively quickly.

Treats were also used to distract the apes at San Diego Zoo while they received doses.

It follows infections among several gorillas at the nearby San Diego Zoo Safari Park in January – for which the cases of Covid-19 were said to have been the first among gorillas in captivity.

Ms Lamberski added that vaccinating apes in this way “wasn’t the norm”, but she felt it was necessary, considering the recent infections. Some of the species are also endangered, with as few as 5,000 gorillas remaining in the wild, according to 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,” said Ms Lamberski.

Winston, a 49-year-old silverback, was among eight gorillas at San Diego Safari Park who tested positive for Covid-19 in January, received a form of antibody treatment, and was recovering.

Both the zoo and safari park are operated and owned by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

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