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Zoos in the US vaccinate tigers, bears and gorillas against COVID-19

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(CNN) – The Oakland and Denver zoos are among the first to vaccinate tigers, bears and other mammals susceptible to infection with COVID-19 with a new animal vaccine created by the Zoetis company.

The two-dose vaccine was initially administered to gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in March, after coronavirus cases were confirmed in a group of large primates at the zoo.

Zoetis donated more than 11,000 doses to nearly 70 zoos and wildlife sanctuaries across the country as part of an experimental vaccination effort authorized by the United States Department of Agriculture.

“This is a vaccine that was developed for animals by the Zoetis company,” said Scott Larsen, chief veterinarian at the Denver Zoo. “By using it in animals, it does not remove vaccines that would otherwise be distributed to people,” he explained.

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At the Oakland Zoo, animal vaccinations began June 30 and the animals are “very well” after receiving the drug, said Erin Harrison, a zoo spokeswoman.

Zoo keepers monitored the animals after they received the doses to make sure they were acting normally, Harrison said. The zoo received a sufficient number of experimental vaccines to apply to 50 animals. Each requires two doses, to be given three weeks apart, he said.

Concern for the survival of species

Although research on the effects of COVID-19 on animals is limited, cases and deaths in populations of endangered animals – such as an outbreak in a tiger reserve in India that killed several big cats – the put them at greater risk, Larsen said. The vaccine will help protect less common types of mammals, he said.

“We are concerned about total animal populations and long-term survival on the planet,” Larsen said. “There has been concern about the wild populations of these animals, some of the last on earth, and what may happen when the virus enters them. We are just trying to do the best we can,” he added.

Ferret Archie gets vaccinated at the Oakland Zoo.

Zoetis began testing for the vaccine when the first reports emerged of a dog catching COVID-19 in Hong Kong last year, spokeswoman Christina Lood said.

Many of the reported animal cases with COVID-19 are from mammals, including big cats, primates, ferrets, and minks. They have often been infected after being exposed to infected caregivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Precautions at zoos across the country against the pandemic protect animals, not just visitors, Larsen said.

CNN’s Brisa Colon contributed to this report.

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