Oakland Zoo vaccinates animals against COVID-19

Grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, tigers and ferrets are among the first residents of the Oakland Zoo to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Primates, including Chimpanzees, fruit bats, and pigs were next up to get shots as part of a massive effort to protect zoo animals across the United States from the potentially deadly virus.

“Up until now, we have been using public barriers at certain habitats to ensure social distancing, along with enhanced PPE worn by staff to protect our susceptible species from COVID-19,” Dr. Alex Herman, the zoo’s vice president of veterinary services, said in a statement. “We’re happy and relieved to now be able to better protect our animals with this vaccine, and are very thankful to Zoetis for not only creating it, but for donating it to us and dozens of other AZA-accredited zoos across the U.S.”

A tiger receives a COVID-19 vaccine. Photo: Oakland Zoo

Zoetis is a New Jersey-based animal healthcare and pharmaceutical company. Its researchers in Michigan began working on an animal COVID-19 vaccine after the first dog was infected in Hong Kong last year.

It is now donating more than 11,000 doses of its homegrown COVID-19 vaccine to nearly 70 zoos, more than a dozen conservatories and other institutions across 27 states.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the vaccine for experimental use, as have various state veterinarians. Zoos began asking for vaccines after an outbreak among gorillas at the San Diego Safari Park.

Dr. Mike McFarland, Chief Medical Officer at Zoetis, said his company has long supported animal care in zoos.

“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,” he said in a statement.

The Oakland Zoo selected the animals at the highest risk for shots as soon as it got a shipment on June 29.

Kern, a black bear, got a reward of whipped cream after getting his shot.

Zoetis said its vaccine is uniquely formulated for animals and builds on its experience developing other coronavirus vaccines for dogs, cats, poultry and cattle.

It spent eights months on safety studies, which were presented for international analysis 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,” Mahesh Kumar, senior vice-president, Global Biologics at Zoetis, explained. “More than ever before, the COVID-19 pandemic 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.”

Still, the Oakland Zoo is now facing questions about safety.

It turned to social media this week to address concerns after he posted photos and videos of his animals getting their shots.

“We’ve been in close contact with Zoetis, the AZA, and the veterinary community throughout this endeavor, and we have evaluated the safety information & have determined that the benefit of protecting the higher risk susceptible species with the Zoetis vaccine outweighs the possible risk of adverse vaccine reactions,” the zoo explained.

It maintains health and safety of its animals is of paramount importance.

“It has now been five days since our first animals were vaccinated, and as we expected, and they all are doing great with no adverse reactions to the vaccine. If a reaction did occur, we were ready to react with preventative measures and protocols,” it added.

The zoo continues to evaluate the scientific literature, but it is worried about increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in non-domestic carnivores, especially recent and more severe cases from the Delta variant.

“We are eager to protect our animals,” the zoo said. “They are and always will be our first priority.”

A ferret receives a vaccine at the Oakland Zoo. Photo: Oakland Zoo

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Recovering newspaper reporter.

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