Devon Prince, front, puts down a sticker to guide visitors at the San Diego Zoo in this photo from June , 623. The zoo vaccinated nine great apes against COVID – earlier this month after a troop of gorillas in its Safari Park became infected in January. (Gregory Bull / The Associated Press)
The coughing among the western lowland gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in January was the first warning sign. Soon the fears were confirmed: A troop of gorillas became the first apes known to test positive for the coronavirus.
Around the world, many scientists and veterinarians are now racing to protect animals from the coronavirus, often using the same playbook for minimizing disease spread among people: That includes social distancing, health checks and, for some zoo animals, a vaccine.
Karen, a 16 – year-old orangutan, became the first ape in the world to get a coronavirus vaccine on Jan. at the San Diego Zoo.
Karen has received two shots of a vaccine from Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company in New Jersey, and has shown no adverse reactions. Since then, nine other primates at the San Diego Zoo have been fully vaccinated: five bonobos and four orangutans. Four more animals – one bonobo and three gorillas – got their first shot this month and will get a second one in April.
“I was really convinced that we wanted to get that to protect our other great apes,” said the zoo’s wildlife health officer Nadine Lamberski, who explained she felt urgency to act after the eight gorillas fell sick.
Elderly silverback developed pneumonia
That virus outbreak was linked to a zookeeper who was infected but had no symptoms. Seven gorillas recovered after a mild case of sniffles, but one elderly silverback had pneumonia, likely caused by the virus, as well as heart disease. He was put on antibiotics and heart medication, and received an antibody treatment to block the virus from infecting cells.
About three dozen zoos across the United States and abroad have put in orders for the Zoetis vaccine, which is formulated to elicit a strong immune response in particular animal species.
“We will jump at the opportunity to get the Zoetis vaccine for our own great apes,” said Oakland Zoo’s veterinary director Alex Herman, who is ordering 42 doses.
Zoetis got a permit from the US Department of Agriculture to provide the doses on an experimental basis to the San Diego Zoo. The company will need to apply for the same permission to provide vaccine to additional zoos.
Scientists believe the coronavirus likely originated in wild horseshoe bats, before jumping – perhaps through an intermediate species – to humans. Now many researchers worry that humans may unwittingly infect other susceptible species.
“Right now, humans are the main vectors of SARS-CoV-2, with consequences for many animal species,” said Arinjay Banerjee, a disease researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
Great apes such as gorillas, which share 28 per cent of their DNA with humans, are especially susceptible, as are felines. So far, confirmed coronavirus cases include gorillas, tigers and lions at zoos; domestic cats and dogs; farmed mink, and at least one wild mink in Utah.
Pigs, cattle not susceptible
Scientists have also experimentally shown that ferrets, racoon dogs and white-tailed deer are susceptible, although pigs and cattle are not.
“This could be a conservation concern, especially if the virus began to spread in a wild species with extremely reduced populations, like the black-footed ferret,” which is endangered, said Kate Langwig, an infectious disease ecologist at Virginia Tech.
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