Story at a glance

  • The vaccine, developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis, was tested on cats and dogs.
  • The vaccination of the apes was prompted by the infection of a group of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in January, the first known cases of COVID-19 among primates other than humans.
  • The animals have had no adverse side effects and blood tests will soon determine whether they developed antibodies.

A group of great apes at the San Diego Zoo are the first known nonhuman primates to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, according to National Geographic

Four orangutans and five bonobos that reside at the zoo each received two doses of an experimental vaccine for animals last month developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis. Among the group is an orangutan named Karen, who in 1994 became the first ape to undergo open-heart surgery. 


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The animals have had no adverse side effects, and blood tests will soon determine whether they developed antibodies. 

The vaccination of the apes was prompted by the infection of a group of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in January, the first known cases of COVID-19 among primates other than humans. 

Eight gorillas living together in one exhibit all tested positive for the virus and experienced a range of symptoms including runny noses, coughing and reduced appetite. One silverback gorilla developed pneumonia and heart disease. The animals are thought to have contracted the virus from an employee who tested positive. The animals are recovering and are set to receive the experimental vaccine later in the spring, 60 to 90 days after they were infected.

While the vaccine had only been tested on cats and dogs, Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, decided to vaccinate the zoo’s apes out of concern for the primates, who live together in close family groups. 

“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 told National Geographic. 

COVID-19 infections have been confirmed in dogs, domestic cats, mink and big cats, but transmission among gorillas have sparked concern among conservationists as all species of gorillas are listed as endangered or critically-endangered.


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Published on Mar 04, 2021