A veterinary pharmaceutical giant is donating 900 doses of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine for animals to six Canadian zoos.
The vaccine, developed by U.S.-based Zoetis, the world’s largest producer of drugs and vaccines for pets and livestock, is not yet commercially available.
The vaccine is authorized for experimental use through the Canadian Centre for Veterinary Biologics of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as well as having a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit, Zoetis spokesperson Christina Lood said.
She expects the zoos will receive the doses by the end of the year. The vaccines will be administered in two doses, three weeks apart. It is estimated that 450 zoo animals can be vaccinated.
“When animals are in our care, it’s important to do everything we can to keep them healthy and happy,” said Dr. Chris Enright, the veterinarian at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg.
“There’s an important role for vaccinations to play in this effort, including the emerging animal-specific COVID-19 vaccination.”
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Zoo animals susceptible to COVID-19 include big cats such as lions and tigers; great apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees and members of the mustelid family, such as otters and ferrets. A recent report also found the virus has spread to the white-tailed deer population in four U.S. states.
Earlier this month, three snow leopards at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska died of COVID complications. Two hyenas at the Denver Zoo also tested positive, along with 11 lions and two tigers. The Denver hyenas were the first confirmed hyena cases in the world.
Zoetis has not released the names of the Canadian zoos that will be receiving the vaccine, but Enright confirmed that Assiniboine Park Zoo is one of the six. As far as he knows, there have not been any COVID-19 infections in accredited zoos in Canada so far.
Meanwhile, other zoos are getting in line to vaccinate susceptible animals as soon as they can.
“It’s like when we started with human vaccines. We all waited to be vaccinated,” said Nathalie Santerre, director with Parc Safari in Hemmingford, Que. “I’m confident it will come soon.”
Santerre has a number of felines she would like to see vaccinated, including lions, tigers and lynx. She added the zoo’s spotted hyenas to the list after learning about the infections in Denver.
Zoetis started developing the vaccine in February 2020, when the first dog was reported to be infected in Hong Kong, Lood said. Initial development work and studies were completed on dogs and cats. The results were shared last year at the World One Health Congress, which looks at how human and animal health are intertwined.
At this point, companion animals such as dogs and cats infected with COVID-19 are considered to be at low risk of serious illness or death. Regulatory agencies such as the Canadian Centre for Veterinary Biologics and the U.S Department of Agriculture decide whether there is a need for a vaccine for certain animals, Lood said.
The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have said there is little indication that companion animals play a significant role in human transmission, she said. If that changes, Zoetis is prepared to rapidly develop a COVID vaccine for domestic animals.
Last January, Zoetis donated its vaccine for emergency use for members of the great ape population at the San Diego Zoo, which led to interest from other zoos.
Vets have been following vaccination developments, Enright said.
“Every veterinarian works closely with their clients to determine what’s best for the health of the animals in their care. In my particular situation, I’m comfortable utilizing the vaccine in the health care of select species and individuals.”
The vaccine is specially formulated for animals, Lood said.
“The virus — or antigen— is the same as in human vaccines. However, vaccines for animals vary based on the carrier — or adjuvant — that is used,” she said. “It doesn’t use a live or inactivated virus, nor does it use mRNA.”
Zoetis is still getting requests for the vaccine and recently committed to donating an additional 15,000 doses to about 100 zoos and 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations across the U.S. and 14 other countries, Lood said. These include the 900 doses allocated to the six zoos in Canada.