In late August 2021, numerous news reports surfaced claiming zoologists in Michigan were giving COVID-19 vaccines to some animals.
The reports were true. In a news release available on the website of the Detroit Zoo, the state's biggest zoo, which is located in a Detroit suburb, administrators announced the following on Aug. 30:
The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has begun to vaccinate animals who are believed to be most susceptible to COVID-19. Use of the special vaccine, which was developed exclusively for animals by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis, has been authorized on a case-by-case basis by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Gorillas, chimpanzees, tigers and lions are the first to receive doses.
“The animals routinely get other vaccinations. Many of the mammals are trained to present themselves to our animal care staff for minor medical procedures, including vaccinations. We’re both thankful and relieved a special vaccine is now available to protect against COVID-19,” said Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the DZS.
Since the early months of the pandemic, zoo animals have caught SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, though instances of such infections are rare. Humans can pass the virus to animals, especially if they're in close contact with each other, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For example, tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo became infected in April 2020, and a gorilla troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive shortly after that, according to National Geographic.
No animal at the Detroit Zoo had tested positive, as of the news release's announcement, which meant the vaccinations aimed to prevent possible future outbreaks.
“Much like we vaccinate dogs for things like parvovirus, distemper or rabies, this is needed to protect animals at the zoo,” said Dr. Ann Duncan, the society's director of animal health, in the release.
Mahesh Kumar, a leader of global biologics at Zoetis, told National Geographic for an Aug. 20 story that he was was overseeing dozens of agreements with zoos (including the Detroit Zoo's) and requests to the USDA and state veterinarians to inoculate animals against the virus. (National Geographic was the first to report on Zoetis' first vaccine recipients — great apes at the San Diego Zoo — in February.)
According to Science Magazine, the company's vaccine works similarily to the Novavax vaccine for humans by inoculating animals with an antigen that gets their immune systems to fight SARS-Co-V-2 upon infection.
Meanwhile, scientists were urging for more research to determine the full extent to which COVID-19 threatened the animal kingdom.
"We don't yet know all of the animals that can get infected," the CDC stated. "More studies are need to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19."
So far, positive COVID-19 reports included the following, according to the CDC:
- Companion animals, including pet cats and dogs and one ferret.
- Animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including several types of big cats, otters, and non-human primates.
- Mink on mink farms.
- Wild white-tailed deer in several U.S. states.