COVID-19 Vaccine for Zoo Residents


To be clear, you are not competing with a lowland gorilla for a COVID-19 vaccine. This is where the animal health company Zoetis comes in, creating COVD-19 specifically for non-human species. The advantage of vaccinating zoo animals against the sudden acute respiratory syndrome virus that causes COVID-19 is not only to protect the animals themselves (which may be endangered or threatened species) but also protect the humans who care for them IF indeed they can pass the disease back to people, which is unclear.

Western lowland gorillas at San Diego Safari Park

It’s known that non-human primates and feline species are susceptible to COVID-19. It’s also known that mink and perhaps related species are particularly susceptible as well.

On January 11, a troop of eight Western Lowland Gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for the coronavirus. Gorillas are particularly prone to a respiratory disease, even the common cold that we shake off can make gorillas pretty sick. Indeed, some of the gorillas did become ill as a result of COVID-19. They have all since been treated. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park and San Diego Zoo has reportedly vaccinated all great apes in their care.

In Rwanda, wild gorillas are at risk due to their close association with tourism. Should they be vaccinated?

The COVID-19 vaccine that the San Diego Safari Park and Zoo used on its apes was produced by Zoetis and approved for experimental use for the great apes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Interestingly, the great have been trained to participate in their own care, and offer their arm voluntarily for an injection.

Might Zoetis consider vaccinating Mountain Gorillas, which are habituated to humans? Tourism to see these gorillas has fueled the economies of Rwanda and also Uganda. Presumably if only one gorilla in a troupe gets the virus, all others might. As a result of ecotourism the numbers of mountain gorillas has been on the rise – the only great apes species on the increase, however gradual.

Mink are susceptible to COVID-19

Zoetis started developing a COVID-19 vaccine for dogs and cats in 2020, when the company first noted that dogs in Hong Kong were getting infected. However, the USDA has not approved vaccines for dogs and cats, presumably because it turns out that there is no need.  It’s exceedingly exceptional that dogs get COVID-19, and while cats may get the virus their immune systems fend it off nearly immediately in nearly all cases. And dogs and cats – from what is known today – can’t infect humans. SARS CoV-2 is considered a human virus.

However, the story with mink is different, as they are highly susceptible to COVID-19, and worldwide millions  of mink have been culled.  A vaccine for mink is being considered. A Danish Stans Serums Institut report  calls for breeding of mink to stop. While the report focuses on public health, I add the ethical question:. Do we really need to continue breeding mink for their pelts? What’s more, when the virus duplicates undeterred, it’s far more likely to mutate and create variants – which could further threaten human health.

Another potential issue for zoos are feline species, also susceptible to the virus. Some captive feline species have become ill, and may be protected by a vaccine created for them.