Oakland Zoo begins experimental COVID-19 vaccine program on its wildlife

Tigers, bears, mountain lions and ferrets were the first to get the vaccine.

The Oakland Zoo received its first shipment of the experimental vaccine developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis and began to give doses to its tigers, black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions and ferrets, who were the first animals to receive the vaccine, according to a statement from the Oakland Zoo. The zoo next plans to give doses to primates, including chimpanzees, as well as fruit bats and pigs.

"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. 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.," said Dr. Alex Herman, vice president of veterinary services at the Oakland Zoo.

Zoetis plans to donate more than 11,000 doses of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine to help protect the health and well-being of more than 100 mammalian species living in nearly 70 zoos, more than a dozen conservatories, sanctuaries, academic institutions and government organizations across 27 states.

"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," said Dr. Mike McFarland, chief medical officer at Zoetis.

The experimental vaccine has been authorized for use on a case-by-case basis by the USDA as well as appropriate state veterinarians and comes after the San Diego Zoo requested help in January following an outbreak of COVID-19 among the zoo's great apes.

"When the first dog was infected with COVID-19 in Hong Kong last year, we immediately began to work on a vaccine that could be used in domestic animals, and in eight months we completed our initial safety studies, which we presented at the World One Health Congress 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," said Mahesh Kumar, senior vice president, global biologics at Zoetis. "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."

"The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used," said the zoo in the statement.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 75% of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19.

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