Over 100 mammalian species will receive a vaccine developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis using an experimental drug.
Nearly 70 zoos across the US are inoculating over 100 mammalian species including big cats, great apes, bears, skunks, badgers, and ferrets among others against the coronavirus with an experimental vaccine.
They include zoos in Denver, Oakland and Wisconsin, the Philadelphia Zoo in Pennsylvania, the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison as well as Ohio’s Cincinnati, Columbus, and Akron zoos.
Although most zoos have no positive COVID cases, the drive is part of a national effort to protect animal species against the infectious and deadly virus.
“There’s just so many unknowns with what just occurred in this pandemic,” Joseph Darcangelo, deputy director at Vilas Zoo on Madison’s Near West Side said.
“I think this proactive approach of getting this vaccine out and getting our animals vaccinated is a good measure to demonstrate what zoos are doing to care for their animals.”
The doses are developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis. It will be donating more than 11,000 doses to nearly 70 zoos, conservatories, sanctuaries, academic institutions and government organizations of nearly 27 states.
While there are concerns about the drug’s efficacy and safety since the vaccine is still under development, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the respective state veterinarians have approved the vaccine for experimental use on a case-by-case basis.
In an official statement, Oakland Zoo – one of the recipients of the vaccine – said that ‘all COVID-19 vaccines are categorized as ‘experimental” because the virus emerged less than two years ago, so no long-term studies are possible’.
It added: “Development studies by Zoetis demonstrated the vaccines to be safe and have a reasonable expectation of efficacy in mounting an immune response in animals; there were no adverse reactions when the vaccine was administered to cats and dogs.”
COVID-19 in animals
Virus infection numbers in animals have been fairly low and most cases have occurred in domestic pets like dogs and cats.
However, a few reports of captive animals catching the virus, which is believed to be likely from their caretakers, have emerged. In April, some big cats at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for coronavirus, and snow leopards at the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky contracted the virus in December.
Four lions in a zoo in Barcelona also tested positive for coronavirus last year.
Meanwhile, the infection in the mink population has posed serious problems. Denmark reported the largest outbreak leading the country to cull 17 million mink to contain the virus.
Do animals need vaccines?
In most animal cases, the virus isn’t deadly and does not mandate vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also maintains that the likelihood of animals spreading the disease to humans is low.
However, Mahesh Kumar, senior vice president, global biologics at Zoetis said that the company expedited work on the vaccine following news of a dog getting infected with COVID-19 in Hong Kong last year.
“While thankfully a COVID-19 vaccine is not needed in pets or livestock at this time, we are proud that our work can help zoo animals at risk of COVID-19,” Kumar explained.
“More than ever before, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the important connection between animal health and human health, and we continue to monitor for emerging infectious diseases that can impact animals as well as people.”
Earlier this year, the San Diego Safari Park used the Zoetis vaccine for its great apes after an outbreak infected several members of a troop of gorillas.
Bonobo and orangutan troops also received the shots after veterinarians for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) – the nonprofit that oversees the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park – identified them as having the most risk of contracting the virus.
“The animals are doing well and we have seen no adverse reactions from the vaccine. The wildlife in our care is closely monitored throughout their lives,” SDZWA spokeswoman Darla Davis said.
Moreover, Dr Mike McFarland is the chief medical officer at Zoetis. He added: “We are proud that our innovative research and development work and vaccine donations can help veterinary professionals within the zoo community continue to provide a high standard of care to the primates, big cats, and many other species they care for and reduce the risk of COVID-19.”
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