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Milwaukee County Zoo To Administer Experimental COVID-19 Vaccine To Some Animals

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Courtesy of Milwaukee County Zoo
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A staff member at the Milwaukee County Zoo gives a hyena a vaccine. Most of their animals are trained to take shots and are rewarded with food, otherwise the animals need to be anesthetized to receive care.

As humans have been getting the COVID-19 vaccine, pretty soon so will some zoo animals.

Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company, is donating 11,000 doses of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine to zoos, sanctuaries, universities and other animal conservation sites throughout the U.S. Among the list of recipients is Madison's Henry Vilas Zoo and the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Among the first animals to get the vaccine will be those at the highest risk of natural infection, according to Dr. Pamela Govett. She's the senior staff veterinarian at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

The animals at the top of the list for vaccination include several primates, big cats and three of their otters.

But with so many different species to treat, how does one vaccine work effectively for all of them? "Vaccines tend to work across species," notes Govett. "Basically it's just the adjuvant that is added that is different from the humans that's made to stimulate antibody production, it helps to encourage that."

For example, the Milwaukee County Zoo uses human influenza vaccines for bonobos, and canine and feline distemper vaccines in their big cats. For the COVID-19 vaccine from Zoetis, the animals will receive two doses four weeks apart.

"Part of this experimental vaccine is that we are going to be, especially for our big cats, taking blood before we give the vaccine and at intervals afterwards to see how [it develops]," Govett explains.

Big Cats Vaccinations 01-2021-MPR.mp4

Video: Staff at the Milwaukee County Zoo administer a vaccine to hyenas who are trained to come close for care. COVID-19 vaccines are set to arrive in late July. Video courtesy of the Milwaukee County Zoo.

She says that most animals at the zoo are trained for voluntary blood draws but for those that aren't, anesthetizing is required. However, Govett says, "[The zookeepers] don't feel like we have to do that to get an idea of how long the vaccine's going to stay in their immune system."

While there have been other examples of zoo animals in the U.S. contracting COVID-19 since the outbreak, so far no animals at Milwaukee County Zoo have tested positive.

Other zoos have also vaccinated animals without any side effects. Govett says, "So we feel pretty confident going forward in vaccinating our own animals."

There will be a strategy to vaccinating Milwaukee's zoo animals since once a vial is opened, those 10 doses need to be used within 24 hours, she says. "We're gonna have to work together with the keepers closely. If one animal isn't coming up for its vaccine that day, well then maybe we'll have to plan on vaccinating a different animal or switching it from a bonobo to a tiger that day," Govett explains.

This first round of the vaccine is dedicated to animals most at risk, but Govett says they may consider vaccinating additional animals in the future. In the meantime, Milwaukee County Zoo employees will continue to wear personal protective equipment around the animals, even after vaccinations.

Govett notes that vaccinating animals is important not only to keep them healthy, but to protect staff and visitors as well.

"As we've seen from COVID as an example, at least about 75% of the diseases that are emerging now are animal origin that have mutated and gotten into the human population. And so now more than ever, we can see the connection between human and animal health," she says.

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