Apes at San Diego Zoo become first non-human primates to receive COVID-19 vaccine



Nine great apes at the San Diego Zoo — four orangutans and five bonobos — have made veterinary history by becoming the world’s first non-human primates known to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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

Each of the nine animals received two doses of an experimental vaccine originally designed for dogs and cats, and are all doing well with no adverse reactions, zoo spokesperson Darla Davis said.

Zoo officials went ahead with the shots due to concerns about the animals’ wellbeing after a troop of eight gorillas at the affiliated San Diego Zoo Safari Park fell ill with COVID-19 in January, marking the first known transmission of the virus to great apes.

The eight gorillas, including a 48-year-old male “silverback” named Winston who suffered from pneumonia and heart disease, have since improved and appear to be on their way to a full recovery, Ms Davis said.

An employee puts a sticker of a green arrow on the ground at the entrance of the San Diego Zoo
The orangutans and bonobos chosen to receive the vaccine were considered the most at-risk.(AP: Gregory Bull)

Winston was treated with a variety of 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. They were thought to have caught the illness from an asymptomatic staff member.

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

Several members of the gorilla troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Several members of the gorilla troop at the zoo tested positive for coronavirus in January.(AP: San Diego Zoo Safari Park)

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

The vaccine developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis was not tested on apes, but cross-species use of vaccines is not uncommon and apes at the zoo get human flu and measles vaccines.

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