An AAHA-accredited zoo gets ready to vaccinate high-risk animals against COVID

Zoetis announced in early July that it was donating 11,000 doses of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine—which is a veterinary vaccine and very different from the human vaccine—to nearly 70 zoos across the United States. One of those is ZooTampa in Tampa, Florida.  

ZooTampa, the only AAHA-accredited zoo in the US, is home to more than 1,300 animals on 65 acres.  

When reports of zoo animals testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 first surfaced in early April 2020 (a Malaysian tiger at the Bronx zoo was the first confirmed case), ZooTampa’s head veterinarian took it in stride. 

“I didn’t freak out because we had already [implemented] safety protocols,” Cynthia Stringfield, DVM, told NEWStat. “I looked at the research, and what species would probably be susceptible.” The answer was mammals. “I went around and made sure that we had a 6-foot barrier between visitors and all the animals.”  

The zoo had also implemented strict safety procedures for their animal care staff, which included lots of hand washing and donning PPE such as gloves and KN 95 masks around animals. 

No animals at ZooTampa caught COVID, and Stringfield credits the early implementation of those protocols: “We were really aggressive from the beginning because I didn’t want to be one of those people in the media with a COVID case in a tiger or something like that,” she said. 

Other zoos haven’t been so fortunate.  

Big cats like the one at Bronx Zoo have gotten most of the press. But early this year, three gorillas at the San Diego Zoo tested positive for the coronavirus, the first great apes in the world to do so. Which is why ZooTampa’s nonhuman primates top Stringfield’s list of animals the animal-care staff are prioritizing for vaccination as soon as their vaccine shipment arrives from Zoetis—hopefully sometime this week.  

Other at-risk species on the list include otters after several otters at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta were confirmed with SARS-CoV-2 last April—“We have two otters here,” Stringfield notes.  

Bats are on the list, too.  

Stringfield mentioned that at this point most scientists agree that the virus probably didn’t mutate in bats, but a coronavirus similar to the one that causes COVID-19 in humans has been identified in horseshoe bats in the UK, and while ZooTampa doesn’t have any horseshoe bats, they do have fruit bats. In the spirit of not taking chances, she’s including them among the animals they’ll be vaccinating.  

Stringfield says she has no concerns about the safety of the vaccine. “I’m in touch with a couple of the other zoos that have started [vaccinating] before us.” She said those zoos have had zero problems so far: No side effects, no problems with how the animals were feeling after getting the vaccine. “The longer-term question is, will it be protective in these different species? We don’t have a lot of information yet, but we will be sharing that information as it becomes available.”  

The Zoetis vaccine was originally developed for minks, but zoos have received approval to use it in zoo animals on an emergency basis.  

Each zoo is adopting slightly different protocols on which animals to vaccinate depending on each zoo’s risk assessment: “We have to think about how we’re going to get the vaccine into some of these animals,” Stringfield said. A big part of the risk assessment is deciding if the degree of difficulty in wrangling an animal in order to administer the vaccine poses a greater risk to the animal than the virus itself.   

ZooTampa had enough heads-up that a vaccine was coming that the animal care staff has had time to prepare. “They’ve been working on training animals to receive injections so that we can do this voluntarily with as many as we can.” 

Stringfield said orangutans are at the top of the priority list because they’re so closely related to humans and because they’re in an open habitat. “Essentially, we’re training them to prepare to be vaccinated: They get a vaccine, then they get a food treat.  Our staff has been working really hard with them on that." 

“What we try to do is have them participate in their own healthcare,” Stringfield said. “It’s easier on everybody.” Unfortunately, that’s not possible with all species. “We’ll probably have to restrain our bats to give them their vaccines.” 

Stringfield said one of the zoo’s two tigers are already trained for injections. “We’re working with the second tiger.” 

Stringfield will be in there vaccinating once they receive the vaccine. “I think it’s going to be 'all hands on deck' once we get it.” Each vial of the vaccine contains 10 doses, and the vaccine has a short shelf-life: Once they open a vial, they’ll need 10 animals ready to be vaccinated.  

Stringfield wants to get the word out to the public that the vaccine is safe, and that it’s not the human vaccine.  

She reiterates that the vaccine they’ll be using is “specifically made for minks, so it’s not anything that would ever be used on a human.” She said it’s not even the same technology used to develop the human vaccine: “This is a veterinary vaccine technology that’s been around for quite some time and is very, very safe.”  

Photo Credit: © Freder/E+/via Getty Images Plus 

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