By Peter Barker
Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low, nearly 700 zoos across the country have received an experimental vaccine to help protect mammals from the virus.
The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Louisiana, has begun vaccinating its gorillas and orangutans against COVID-19, according to a statement from the zoo on Oct. 12.
Bob MacLean, Audubon’s senior veterinarian, said: “It’s very important to us to protect our animals against COVID-19 and the Delta variant.”
The vaccine has been authorized for use “on a case-by-case basis by the Department of Agriculture and the appropriate state veterinarians,” the zoo said.
Zoetis, described as an animal health company, is a former Pfizer subsidiary. It donated 11,000 doses of its vaccine to more than 70 zoos in the United States.
“Zoetis’ COVID-19 vaccine is uniquely formulated for animal species. Although the virus — or antigen — is the same as in human vaccines, vaccines for animals vary based on the carrier … that is used,” Zoetis said. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used.”
MacLean said the zoo “has been evaluating the scientific literature on animal susceptibility throughout the pandemic, and we are eager to protect our animals.”
After administering the vaccine to gorillas and orangutans, the Audubon Zoo said it will then move on to cats and mustelids such as otters.
“All the animals receiving the vaccine at the zoo and aquarium voluntarily participate in their own health care through positive reinforcement training and are not put under anesthesia to receive their vaccination,” said the Audubon Nature Institute. “They have been trained to sit, stand, or present their bodies during regular health checks by animal care and veterinary staff.”
All staff working in proximity with the animals have been following personal protection protocols since the start of the pandemic, the zoo said.
“This proactive measure is an additional layer of protection. The health of the animals in our care, staff and guests is our top priority,” MacLean said.
“Although there are no long-term studies since the virus emerged less than two years ago, development studies by Zoetis demonstrated the vaccine to be safe and have a reasonable expectation of efficacy in mounting an immune response in animals” MacLean said.
In 2020, a dog in Hong Kong “weakly” tested positive fo COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization. Three western lowland gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for the coronavirus in January, the Agriculture Department reported.
Edited by Judith Isacoff and Kristen Butler
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