by Cassidy Morrison
July 12, 2021
A growing number of zoos across the country have ordered specially designed COVID-19 vaccines for higher-risk animal species with the most interaction with human visitors, such as great apes and big cats.
The animal health company Zoetis has developed a two-dose vaccine specially formulated for animal use to “help protect the health and well-being of more than 100 mammalian species,” said Christina Lood, communications director at Zoetis.
“What is known is that mammals are susceptible to [COVID-19] to varying degrees — not reptiles or avian species for example. The zoo veterinarians use their own risk assessments to determine which mammals in their care should be vaccinated. … Plus they might consider whether certain animals are rare or endangered,” Lood told the Washington Examiner.
The Cincinnati Zoo and the Akron Zoo in Ohio as well as the Denver Zoo in Colorado, among others, will receive portions of 11,000 donated doses of the vaccines to administer to a handful of animals. The Denver Zoo will administer the first round of shots to some gorillas, lions, and tigers, which have the highest likelihood of getting sick from the coronavirus.
Seven big cats at the Bronx Zoo were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 last year. There have also been reports of several instances at other zoos of other mammals, such as snow leopards and otters, getting infected.
“It is by far and away a disease in people, and it’s being transmitted by people to other people and then from people to animals,” said Dr. Scott Larsen, the head veterinarian at the Denver Zoo. “Say it got into our gorillas. … We would be concerned about spread to other gorillas in our care.”
The Denver Zoo will receive 40 doses of the donated doses from Zoetis in the coming weeks, pending final approval by the Department of Agriculture. Larsen said the zoo expects to receive enough doses to inoculate 20 animals at first, though he was not sure which other mammals at the zoo would receive the shots later on. While no animals at the Denver Zoo have contracted COVID-19, the move to vaccinate is an added precaution to protect the animals, including some that are endangered.
“We have a tentative plan that’ll depend a little bit on logistics and when exactly when we get the vaccine and such, but because we have seen disease within the zoo community and those species, that’s where we would start because that seems to be where we have the highest risk,” Larsen told the Washington Examiner.
Larsen also stressed that these vaccines are not meant for humans and will not take any of the supply away from people who still need them.