COVID-19 Vaccine for Animals


Courtesy of the San Diego Zoo

After eight gorillas tested positive for COVID-19 at the San Diego Zoo in January, the zoo decided to give a vaccine created for animals to nine of their great apes.

Tiana Salisbury, Photojournalist

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many researchers have become interested in how the virus affects and spreads to animals. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that further research is still needed, there have been cases of the virus spreading from humans to animals – as seen where a tiger at a zoo in New York tested positive for COVID-19. Following this, more cases of animals with COVID-19 have arisen, which included dogs, cats, lions, and cougars. 


In January 2021, the San Diego Zoo had a COVID-19 outbreak that affected eight gorillas, which the zoo believes was most likely caused by a staff member who had the virus. According to National Geographic, the gorillas had human-like symptoms such as coughing and fatigue. Veterinary staff at the zoo were especially concerned because the other great apes at the zoo live in close groups, so if one were to become infected, the entire great ape population at the zoo would be devastated. With concern in mind, the San Diego Zoo connected with Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical, to request to use the vaccine that they have been developing. 


When the first dog contracted COVID-19 in Hong Kong in February 2020, Zoetis started to work on a vaccine that would keep dogs and cats safe from the virus. After being developed and tested for many months, the vaccine was confirmed to be effective in developing a strong immune response, but it is still not certain if the vaccine ultimately prevents the virus. Piper Guyton (10) was surprised to hear about this vaccine, stating that she “had no idea that the Zoetis vaccine existed, but [she hopes] it will help keep animals safe from COVID-19.” When the San Diego Zoo requested doses of this vaccine for their great apes, researchers at both the zoo and Zoestis were apprehensive about giving it to a species that the vaccine had not been tested on. However, they decided to take the risk to give the vaccine to the great apes anyways since the vaccine was made for a specific virus, not a specific species.


Throughout February 2021, four orangutans and five bonobos each received two doses of the Zoetis COVID-19 vaccine. Nadine Lamberski, the head of wildlife health at the San Diego Zoo, states that the zoo plans on vaccinating their gorillas and big cats after the currently vaccinated population recovers. Other zoos around the world are following this example and are also requesting Zoetis’s vaccine for their great apes. Having already vaccinated some of the zoo’s animals, Lamberski is sharing her knowledge with other zoos in hopes of helping the veterinary community learn more about the effects of COVID-19 in animals.