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Orangutans and bonobos at US zoo get experimental COVID-19 vaccine

Orangutans at a zoo.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Nine great apes at the San Diego Zoo are the first non-human primates to receive an experimental COVID-19 vaccine, according to news reports.

In February, four orangutans and five bonobos at the zoo each received two doses of the vaccine, which was developed by the veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis, according to National Geographic.

The zoo reached out to Zoetis after several of the gorillas at their safari park tested positive for COVID-19 in January, and the company responded by providing a small supply of their vaccine, according to a statement from Zoetis.

"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.

One gorilla is also scheduled to be vaccinated at the zoo, but since many of the gorillas there have already tested positive and recovered from COVID-19, they are a lower priority for vaccination right now, according to The New York Times.

But Zoetis plans to provide more vaccines to the San Diego Zoo and other zoos once they have a bigger supply of their vaccine, the Times reported.

Zoetis initially developed their COVID-19 vaccine for use in dogs and cats, but then shifted to studying the vaccine in mink after large outbreaks occurred on mink farms last year. The vaccine is still experimental — it has not yet been approved for use in animals in the U.S., but the company is currently in talks with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval of its COVID-19 vaccine in minks, the statement said.

 Zoetis's vaccine is similar to the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine for humans, which delivers a modified version of the coronavirus's "spike protein," according to Science Magazine.

It's not uncommon for a vaccine developed for one animal species to be repurposed for another species, according to CBS News. Indeed, apes at the San Diego Zoo also receive human flu and measles vaccines, CBS News reported.

Members of another animal species, the endangered black-footed ferret, also received a different experimental COVID-19 vaccine in Colorado last year, Live Science previously reported.

Originally published on Live Science.  

Rachael Rettner
Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a masters degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.