Covid-19: why are some animals now being vaccinated?

The race is on to immunise humanity but animals are also at risk from the coronavirus

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Follow the latest updates on the Covid-19 pandemic here

More than 1.8 billion people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as the international community comes together to fight the pandemic.

But it is not only the human race that needs protection from the highly contagious virus.

Animals are also being immunised to safeguard their health and limit the spread of the virus.

In the US, vaccines from an animal drug producer, Zoetis, are being used on zoo creatures from mountain lions to grizzly bears.

Zoetis developed coronavirus vaccines for dogs and for cats last year before producing a version for mink later in 2020 following several Covid-19 outbreaks on fur farms.

These shots use the same antigen found in a human coronavirus vaccine but the adjuvants – substances added to strengthen the immune response – vary.

Trials proved that the vaccines were safe and likely to be effective. In Russia, domestic animals, including dogs, have been vaccinated with a shot developed in the country called Carnivac-Cov, mass production of which reportedly began in April.

Dogs kept by the country’s military were said to have been vaccinated before a parade in early May, and there were reports from later that month that veterinary surgeries in various parts of the country were vaccinating animals.

Here we look at the animals that have been infected with Sars-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, and consider why they are being vaccinated.

What animals can be infected with the coronavirus?

A lion rests in an enclosure on April 10, 2019, at the sanctuary in Jerash, some 50 kilometres north of the Jordanian capital. For more than a year after being moved to a Jordanian wildlife reserve from war-hit Syria, the bears Loz and Sukkar cowered when they heard a plane go by fearing bombardment.
They are among dozens of animals that have been rescued from regional war zones, including the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, and brought to the kingdom's Al Ma'wa For Nature and Wildlife. / AFP / afp / Khalil MAZRAAWI

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, many zoo animals have been infected with the coronavirus, including gorillas and big cats such as cougars, lions, pumas, snow leopards and tigers.

These are thought to have caught Covid-19 from zookeepers, but reports indicate that big cats and gorillas recovered without serious illness.

As reported in The National, Dutch and Canadian studies found signs of coronavirus infection in many pets whose owners had Covid-19, with the results indicating human-to-pet transmission. The most serious outbreaks among animals have been in mink farms in many countries, with the animals having been infected by workers before mink-to-mink spread took place.

Millions of mink were culled in Denmark last year because of concerns about a variant found in them. In Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, and possibly the US, there have been cases of mink passing the virus back to farm workers.

Why are zoo animals being vaccinated?

Conservationists are concerned that Covid-19 could affect endangered animals such as gorillas, so vaccination could protect them. Vaccination is also regarded as reducing the risk that the virus will mutate in animals and then spread back into people in a new form.

In January, Zoetis provided San Diego Zoo with vaccine supplies after gorillas there were infected with the coronavirus. The company announced last week that it had donated more than 11,000 doses, which are being used in more than 100 mammal species in nearly 70 American zoos plus more than a dozen other centres, such as sanctuaries.

After receiving supplies last week, one recipient, Oakland Zoo, started by giving the first of two doses to “highest risk” animals – black bears, ferrets, grizzly bears, mountain lions and tigers – with chimpanzees, fruit bats and pigs next in line.

“Up until now, we have been using public barriers at certain habitats to ensure social distancing, along with enhanced PPE [personal protective equipment] worn by staff to protect our susceptible species from Covid-19,” said Dr Alex Herman, the zoo’s vice president of veterinary services.

“We’re happy and relieved to now be able to better protect our animals with this vaccine.”

Do pets or farm animals need to be inoculated?

Experts are keen to emphasise that, although there have been cases of owners giving Covid-19 to their pets, transmission from pets to owners is not known to happen. The coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats and then spread, probably through an intermediate host, to people.

However, infections in people are now the result of human-to-human transmission, and the CDC says there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people.

If pet owners have Covid-19, they are advised to minimise contact with their animals to ensure they do not give the creatures the disease.

Although pets sometimes catch Covid-19 from their owners, they have no or mild symptoms, so do not appear to be under threat. In line with this, Mahesh Kumar, Zoetis’s senior vice president for global biologics, said last week that “a Covid-19 vaccine is not needed in pets or livestock at this time”.

However, a Russian virologist, Dr Nadezhda Rakhmanina, said last month that farmed mink did need a vaccine because they could “get sick with coronavirus en masse”.

Updated: July 06, 2021, 11:30 AM