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San Diego Zoo Apes Receive Experimental COVID-19 Vaccine

A gorilla at the San Diego Zoo is shown in this undated photo.
San Diego Zoo Global
A gorilla at the San Diego Zoo is shown in this undated photo.

Nine apes at the San Diego Zoo were the first non-human primates to receive a version of the COVID-19 vaccine designed for animals, zoo officials announced Thursday.

In February, four orangutans and five bonobos were the first great apes to receive two doses each of an experimental vaccine for animals developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis, National Geographic reported.

"This isn't the norm. In my career, I haven't had access to an experimental vaccine this early in the process and haven't had such an overwhelming desire to want to use one," Nadine Lamberski chief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, told National Geographic.


Among those receiving vaccines was Karen, an orangutan who made history in 1994 as the first ape to have open-heart surgery.

The zoo has plans to immunize another three bonobos and a gorilla, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Bonobos are the closest living relative to humans, along with chimpanzees. The risk of passing COVID-19 between simian relatives was made clear in January, when eight gorillas contracted the virus. Officials believe the apes contracted the virus from a zoo worker who carried it but was asymptomatic. It was believed to be the first case of transmission of the disease from a human to an ape.

Zoologists at San Diego Zoo Global treated the gorillas with help from professionals with the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, UC San Diego Health, Rady Children's Hospital San Diego, Scripps Research Institute and multiple zoological organizations. Treatments for the oldest gorilla, named Winston, included an experimental monoclonal antibody therapy, from a supply that could not be used on people.

Winston, whose symptoms included a cough and lethargy, was examined under anesthesia due to his advanced age, and veterinarians confirmed he had pneumonia and heart disease.


Viral infections have been confirmed in cats, dogs and larger predators such as lions and tigers.

A spokesperson for Zoetis told National Geographic that other zoos have requested doses of the vaccine for their own apes. The company expects more available in June.