As It Happens

Great apes at the San Diego Zoo have received their COVID-19 vaccines

Nine lucky Californians didn't even have to wait in line to get their COVID-19 doses. 

The lucky primates didn't have to wait in line for their shots, and they've already received both doses

Karen the great ape is one of the primates who has received two doses of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine for animals at the San Diego Zoo. (San Diego Zoo Global )

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Nine lucky Californians didn't even have to wait in line to get their COVID-19 doses. 

The great apes at the San Diego Zoo — four orangutans and five bonobos — have made veterinary history as the world's first non-human primates known to be vaccinated against COVID-19, zoo officials say.

"We were very concerned that our animals were at risk of becoming infected," conservation and wildlife officer Nadine Lamberski told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"Our animals are precious. These are endangered species. And we really wanted to do all that we could to provide them with the best possible care."

And the apes don't have to wait for their second shot either. Over the last three months, all nine received two doses of an experimental animal vaccine that was originally designed for dogs and cats.

They've shown no adverse reactions and are doing well, the zoo says.

Gorilla outbreak 

Lamberski is the chief conservation and wildlife officer for the San Diego Wildlife Alliance, the entity that owns the zoo and the San Diego Safari Park.

The company made the decision to vaccinate the primates at the zoo after eight gorillas at Safari Park fell ill with COVID-19 in January, marking the first known transmission of the virus to great apes.

Zoo officials believe the gorillas caught the virus from an asymptomatic staff member.

One of them, a 48-year-old male silverback named Winston, had a particularly rough time due to his advanced age, suffering from pneumonia and heart disease. Vets treated him with a variety of medications, including a coronavirus antibody therapy for non-humans.

The gorilla troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park fell ill with COVID-19 in January. Winston, left, was particularly hard hit. (Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo)

Winston and the other gorillas have since recovered, and veterinarians are hopeful they've produced enough antibodies to stave off re-infection. 

But the outbreak made the zoo staff worry about the rest of their great apes, especially as more rapidly transmitting variants of the virus started making the rounds in California. .

While it's possible other zoo animals could also catch COVID-19, the great apes are considered particularly at risk because they are closely related to humans and share our susceptibility to a wide range of diseases, including measles and influenza, Lamberski said. 

"We were very concerned that our animals were at at risk of becoming infected," she said. 

Treats and juice 

So how do you administer a vaccine to an ape? By distracting them with treats so they wouldn't notice the needles, zoo spokesperson Darla Davis said.

But, all in all, the apes were pretty chill about the whole thing.

"The animals in our care have a very close relationship with the wildlife care specialists that take care of them, and they're used to working closely with them and sitting still and allowing the care specialist to do a visual exam each day," Lamberski said. 

"All the animals have voluntarily accepted the injection in their shoulder."

In this June 11, 2020, photo, San Diego Zoo staff prepare the facilities to reopen to the public following a COVID-19 closure. The zoo has been closed for five of the last 10 months, most recently re-opening in January 2021. (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

And, of course, they were rewarded for their good behaviour.

"They get some juice that they're very fond of," Lamberski said.

Not available in Canada 

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

"We felt comfortable that this vaccine would be safe for our great apes,"  she said. 

Zoos in Canada have not yet begun to vaccinate primates, but it could be on the table eventually. The vaccine used by the San Diego Zoo is experimental and hasn't been approved for use in Canada. 

"There are not currently plans for vaccinating our gorilla troop, but we are following this carefully and will certainly act when it is appropriate," Toronto Zoo spokesperson Katie Gray said in an email. 

The San Diego Zoo has been open public since January with COVID-19 restrictions in place to protect both the guests and the animals. 

"The public does not have close contact with any of the animals in our care. They're kept there socially distant, if you will, and the public is also asked to wear face coverings," Lamberski said. "So, no, I'm not concerned."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Sonya Varma. 

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