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Orangutan Named Karen Gets COVID-19 Inoculation

March 4, 2021

Zookeepers at the San Diego Zoo have given several orangutans and bonobos an experimental COVID-19 vaccine that has been developed just for animals.

The primates are the first non-humans to get the shot.

One orangutan named Karen, who in 1994 made history when she became the first ape to have open-heart surgery, was among those to get the vaccine, according to National Geographic.

Three other orangutans and five bonobos received two doses each of an experimental vaccine for animals that has been developed by a veterinary pharmaceutical company, said Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

Zookeepers scrambled to find vaccines for animals after eight gorillas at the zoo’s Safari Park tested positive for COVID-19 in what scientists believed was the first time the virus had infected great apes.

Lamberski, a global conservation and wildlife health officer, told Business Insider that “alarm bells” sounded when a 49-year-old silverback gorilla started coughing shortly after a zookeeper tested positive.

“As soon as we knew that an employee was positive, we were on high alert, so just that one or two coughs really sent the alarm bells off, and we immediately started to get the permissions necessary to submit samples for diagnostic testing,” Lamberski told the outlet.

The infected apes eventually recovered, but zookeepers then sought vaccines. Veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis developed the vaccines, which are not suitable for human use, according National Geographic.

“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,” Lamberski said.

Infections have also been confirmed in dogs, cats, mink, tigers, lions and several other animals around the world, the magazine said. But as there are fewer than 5,000 gorillas, wildlife experts were worried that the virus would spread rapidly and endanger the population.

All species of gorillas are listed as endangered or critically-endangered with “susceptibility to disease” as a main threat, said the mag.

“It’s not like we randomly grab a vaccine and give it to a novel species,” she said. “A lot of thought and research goes into it—what’s the risk of doing it and what’s the risk of not doing it. Our motto is, above all, to do no harm.”

“Lamberski decided vaccinating the great apes was worth the risk. She told National Geographic that they haven’t suffered any adverse reactions and will soon be tested for antibodies to determine if the shots were a success,” reported the magazine.

Lamberski said “that big sigh of relief isn’t going to come until our entire community is vaccinated, until the vaccine gets to, you know, remote communities all over the world, to areas where gorillas live in the wild.”

More than a year ago, Zoetis began developing a COVID-19 vaccine for dogs and cats. The vaccine was deemed safe and effective in October.

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