A COVID-19 scare at a zoo nearly 2,500 miles away from North Carolina sparked a push for an experimental vaccine to keep the virus from spreading among the great ape population.
Now the North Carolina Zoo is capitalizing on it.
The zoo is slated to receive six vials of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine specifically designed for animals by the American drug company Zoetis. Each vial has 10 doses — enough to fully vaccinate the zoo’s great apes and then some, said Jb Minter, director of animal health and chief veterinarian.
Vaccinating the great apes provides an important layer of protection for both the animals and humans, Minter told McClatchy News on Thursday.
“At least 75% of infectious diseases come from animal origin, so we can see this important connection between animal health and human health,” he said.
Similar to Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccine requires two doses. The first animals to receive them at the North Carolina Zoo will be a troop of 15 chimpanzees and seven gorillas.
That’s for good reason — old-world primates and great apes were found to have a very high vulnerability to infection in a study published last August in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
In January, a troop of eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo were the first great apes in the world to test positive for the virus, National Geographic reported.
The outbreak prompted the zoo to reach out to Zoetis, which had been working on developing a COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The company provided a supply of the experimental vaccine for the San Diego Zoo’s emergency use.
Word spread quickly in the zoological world. Minter said he reached out to the research director for Zoetis in March to ask about getting the vaccines in North Carolina. But he wasn’t the only one.
“He said they were working on it and we were one of many zoos that had contacted him,” Minter told McClatchy News. “As soon as they got permission they were going to start donating this vaccine to different organizations.”
That didn’t happen until recently. On July 2, Zoetis announced it was donating more than 11,000 doses of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine to nearly 70 zoos and more than a dozen other institutions across the U.S.
Oakland Zoo in Northern California was the first to receive the vaccine at the end of June, Zoetis said.
Minter said the drug company recently got permission from authorities in North Carolina and the necessary federal permits to ship the vaccine to them. They’re expecting the first doses in the next two weeks.
The zoo is hoping to receive more doses as soon as September or October, which Minter wants to use on the big cats. They are also considering vaccinating the bears, American Red Wolves, otters and skunks.
A 5-year-old Malayan Tiger from the Bronx Zoo that was recently moved to the Woodland Park Zoo in Washington was one of the first big cats to test positive for COVID-19, McClatchy News previously reported.
Several otters at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta also got the coronavirus in April.
The North Carolina Zoo has been lucky in that regard — no animals have tested positive for the virus since it reopened to the public last summer.
But there was a scare earlier this month when one of the gorillas began showing signs of an upper respiratory infection. The test came back negative, Minter said, but the entire group ended up catching what turned out to be the common cold.
Minter said he expects to sit down with the animal care teams on staff and make an executive decision on how to roll out the vaccine program. They’ll consider which animals are more exposed to humans — such as otters, where visitors can get close to the edge of their open-air enclosure — and which have some layer of protection — such as sand cats, which sit behind glass.
They’ll also have to work out how to deliver the vaccine.
Minter hopes they can do it through behavioral training without any anesthetics. That means the gorillas and chimpanzees would have to willingly walk up to their keepers to receive the shot.
But he said that’s nothing unusual.
Most of the animals have developed a sense of trust with their caregivers, Minter said. They have a mountain lion who will let keepers take blood samples from his tail, and a bear who will do the same. Even the gorilla that was tested for the coronavirus allowed keepers to swab his nostril with a giant cotton swab.
“The level of trust between the keeper and the animal is to such a level that they will allow them to do things that are uncomfortable — such as giving them the vaccine — because they trust that keeper,” Minter said.