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Solving COVID

Orangutans, bonobos at San Diego Zoo receive experimental COVID-19 vaccine

In February, several bonobos and orangutans at the San Diego Zoo received an experimental COVID-19 vaccine that was developed for animals, becoming the first non-human primates to get inoculated.

One of those orangutans, Karen, has made medical history before — in 1994, she became the first ape to ever undergo open-heart surgery. A total of four orangutans and five bonobos received two doses of the vaccine, developed by Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company. Zoetis began working on the vaccine after the first dog tested positive for COVID-19 in Hong Kong last spring, and testing started on dogs and cats in October.

"This isn't the norm," Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer at the San Diego Zoo, told National Geographic. "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 use one." Eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for COVID-19 in January, and they are now recovering.

Lamberski said the orangutans and bonobos who received the vaccine did not experience any adverse side effects, and they will be tested in the near future to see if they have antibodies. "It's not like we randomly grab a vaccine and give it to a novel species," she told National Geographic. "A lot of thought and research goes into it — what's the risk of doing it and what's the risk of not doing it. Our motto is, above all, to do no harm."