SAN DIEGO — While millions of Homo Sapiens are getting vaccinated for COVID-19 at super stations around the country, nearly 20 of our closest living relatives got a dose that would protect them from the potentially deadly disease. The gorillas, orangutangs and the bonobos living at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park were given a vaccine after a gorilla tested positive for the virus.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t a surprise. We knew that because of the similarities of people and gorillas, we knew that they would be susceptible.” says Nadine Lamberski, the Chief Wildlife Health Officer for the San Diego Zoo. Though only one of the apes was presenting mild symptoms of COVID-19, the zoo’s decision to vaccinate came down to an abundance of caution.
“It’s extra protection for our great apes,” she says “They work closely with our wildlife care specialists and we know that infections can go from people to animals and animals to people.”
But is this the same vaccine that millions of people are still waiting for? It’s close but not exactly. The vaccine was developed by a company called Zoetis who develops medicine for animals, and according to Lamberski is almost identical to the upcoming NovaVax vaccine for humans.
“What makes a vaccine for animals different from a vaccine for people is the species that the vaccine is tested on. So these were tested on dogs and cats.” Says Lamberski
Since human and primates are so similar in DNA, we can both be susceptible to the same illnesses. Which is why its not uncommon for vets to use medicine made for humans. The zoo gives human vaccines like the flu shot or measles vaccines to it’s primates.
While there is next to no information on how new strains could affect our primate friends, the San Diego Zoo decided to take the extraordinary step to be the first to vaccinate non-humans for COVID-19.
“We look at our great apes in our care as part of our community,” says Lamberski “we take our jobs very seriously and the protection of those animals in our care, these endangered species that are irreplaceable, we we take that very seriously.”