Vaccinating Zoo Animals Across America

More than 230 animals at the San Diego Zoo have received a COVID-19 vaccination.
Posted at 11:19 AM, Oct 11, 2021

The effort to get more shots in arms doesn't stop with people in the fight against COVID-19. 

Right now zoos across the country are vaccinating animals against COVID-19 with a specially developed vaccine.

"Even with all the precaution we're taking, it's much like in the human world, you know, we're all taking precautions but you can get it," said Dr. Cynthia Stringfield, senior vice president of animal health, education and conservation at ZooTampa. 

That's why ZooTampa is taking steps to protect them against COVID-19 with an experimental vaccine. It's in the process of administering doses to 93 of its animals. 

This week, they gave second doses to skunks. They use behavioral training for other species that helps some animals take part in their own health care. For example, Goyang, an orangutan, is trained to present his back voluntarily and hold still for a vaccine. Zoo staff practice the process with him ahead of the vaccine date. 

"They look at everything you have in your hands," said Tiffany Burns.

Burns is the director of conservation, research and behavior at the zoo. 

"We want them to know every step of the process and be comfortable with it so it goes smoothly and stress-free," Burns said. 

The vaccine is given in two doses, and once a vial is open needs to be used within 24 hours. It's not a vaccine used for people, though. 

"The technology used is tried-and-true technology that has been used in animals for many many years," said Stringfield.

On what's learned so far about the transmission of the virus between people and animals:

"The good news is so far it's only transmitted back to humans from mink. The other species it has not been documented to, they can get it from people but they have not given it back to people, so that was a huge relief so far,” Stringfield said.

The USDA reported more than 230 positive cases of SARS-COV-2 in non-farm animals and 17 positive mink farms. 

"So we knew from the one health approach we needed to protect the mink so they don't transmit back to the human population as well as cause mutation," said Dr. Mahesh Kumar.

Kumar leads research and development of vaccines at Zoetis, the company behind the vaccine. 

He said their effort to create an animal-specific vaccine for COVID-19 started when they heard about cases in dogs in Hong Kong, but pivoted to mink when the U.S. government started considering applications for the species. 

The USDA said SARS-COV-2 vaccine in animals is limited to mink and on a case-by-case basis for other zoo animals. 

"So here's where we are watching the space and saying, 'OK what happens if the next whatever variant that emerges kind of rapidly spreads in cats and dogs or other animals?' Then we need to be ready so we are watching that space at a regular cadence,” said Kumar. 

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance turned to the vaccine after gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park caught the virus early this year, becoming the first zoo to do so. 

"It was a very dynamic situation that this whole pandemic has put us through, and we really had to think outside the box and be brave in this situation," said Dr. Nadine Lamberski, the chief conservation and wildlife health officer for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

Now more than 230 animals are vaccinated. 

"We have gotten some preliminary results and we do know that we are seeing antibody responses due to vaccine. Whether or not those antibody levels are high enough to protect the animals we may never truly know that. We just learned from experience and watching how things progress over time," Lamberski said. 

Zoetis said it's donating doses to more than 70 zoos and facilities across the country. Like Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. 

"Many of our animals are endangered species. There's very small populations of many of these animals remaining," said Dr. Mike Adkesson, the vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society.  

Zoo Atlanta is getting vaccines, too. 

"We're hoping that we are protecting our animals and we're gathering information to help us determine if the vaccine is in fact generating a good immune response," said Dr. Sam Rivera, the senior director of animal health at Zoo Atlanta.

The zoo said it will vaccinate gorillas as they recover. Some tested positive for the virus in September. The zoo believes it spread from a breakthrough case in a team member. Those at risk of complications received monoclonal antibodies. 

So far, ZooTampa said its animals are healthy. The vaccine keeps it that way.

"There's kind of the individual animal approach and then there's the global one health we call it, which is animal health and human health being intertwined,” said Stringfield.