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Gorillas At The San Diego Zoo Are Vaccinated Against Covid-19 — How About You?

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Silver back gorilla

On Wednesday, March 3, several gorillas at the San Diego Zoo were given an experimental Covid-19 vaccine.

In doing so, the popular institution's gorilla troop became the first known non-human primates to receive the vaccine outside of an experiment in the United States.

What led to the decision to vaccinate gorillas when not all humans have access to the vaccine yet?

There are an estimated 5,000 gorillas remaining in the wild. Many experts and researchers have grown worrisome that a Covid-19 infection could spread rather quickly due to the fact that gorillas tend to live in close proximity to each other and family groups.

If just one ape caught the virus, it could be deadly for gorillas.

Last week's decision to vaccinate the great apes came with urgency following a January scare during which eight gorillas at the zoo tested positive for Covid-19.

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According to Wildlife Health Officer Nadine Lamberski, the key sign the gorillas might have contracted Covid was spotted in a 49-year old silverback gorilla named Winston. The ape began coughing just days after a wildlife care specialist at the zoo tested positive.

"As soon as we knew an employee was positive, we were on high alert, so just that one or two coughs really sent the alarm bells off, and we immediately started to get the permissions necessary to submit samples for diagnostic testing," Lamberski said.

Following Winston's positive test, the zoo scrambled to see if they could solve the situation with as little damage as possible.

"We really had to divide and conquer it, and everybody had a different role," Lamberski said. "We had our wildlife care specialists trying to figure out, you know, if we could separate the animals, and what if one animal was severely ill and had to have intensive care? Was that even possible?"

At the time, they wanted to do their best with the limited resources they had. But then they were faced with the possibility that the entire plan could fall apart and the gorillas would be in immediate danger.

"So again, we had a lot of people doing a lot of things simultaneously because we wanted to be prepared for any outcome," she continued. "You know, we were hoping for the best but preparing for the worst."

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Did the gorillas receive one of the same vaccines humans are getting?

We may be closely related, but humans and gorillas are not the same animals. A vaccine for one may not work for the other. So no, giving the gorillas this vaccine does not come at the expense of humans waiting to receive theirs.

According to National Geographic, a pharmaceutical company named Zoetis, which specializes in veterinary health, developed the experimental vaccine for the gorillas at the zoo. It was not made for human use, nor is it suitable for it.

By February, all eight gorillas recovered from Covid-19. This was the moment for Lamberski where she knew she had to make an effort to obtain some sort of help for the gorillas in case further infection or problem appeared at the zoo.

Upon receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, the zoo administered it to five bonobos and four orangutans.

One of these nine apes, an orangutan named Karen, was the first ape to have open-heart surgery in 1994. She has really been through a lot.

Although the staff at the San Diego Zoo can now rest knowing they have vaccinated their apes, Lamberski feels the work that needs to be done protecting animals is far from complete.

"That big sigh of relief isn't going to come until our entire community is vaccinated, until the vaccine gets to, you know, remote communities all over the world, to areas where gorillas live in the wild," he said.

The vaccinations of these nine apes may represent just the beginning of the fight against Covid-19 in animals. There is much left to do, says Paul Baribault, CEO and President of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

"As we move forward out of Covid-19, I think we certainly hope that the world has a greater understanding of our interdependency, that we are dependent on the health of nature," Baribault said. "We are dependent on the health of wildlife. Our health is tied to all of it."

Thankfully, Winston, Karen and the rest of their troop are okay.

Let’s hope this is just the start of widespread vaccinations for humans and animals alike.

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Tomás Diniz Santos is a writer living in Orlando, Florida. He covers news, entertainment, and pop-culture topics.