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Maryland Zoo prepares to vaccinate animals against COVID-19

As COVID-19 cases surge nationwide, veterinarians are racing to vaccinate vulnerable animals in zoos around the country.

BALTIMORE — As the nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, veterinarians are looking to protect a vulnerable group that’s often overlooked: zoo animals. But just like their human counterparts, it's taking some effort to get the animals comfortable with the medicine. 

Trainers at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore are performing regular exercises with certain animals to prepare them for their future shots. 

“Let me know when I can touch her,” said one technician holding a blunt needle in her hand. “Go ahead. Touch.”

In a well-choreographed dance, technicians lured animals, like Makoda the American Badger, with food to rehearse administering an animal version of the COVID-19 vaccine.  

“This is a blunt needle that kind of symbolizes that pressure of what a needle might feel like,” the zoo technician said. 

Sofiya, the zoo's leopard, is up next.

Credit: WUSA-9

“She did really well, Sofiya's trainer Ruth Collier said. "She was really motivated to train. Sometimes, she'll take a few minutes to come over."

The zoo expects to begin administering the animal version of the COVID-19 vaccine in October. The vaccine, made by a company called Zoetis, is composed in a similar way to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Both vaccines use disabled adenovirus that delivers instructions to the body on how to beat the coronavirus.

Credit: WUSA 9

“This is vaccine technology that's been used before in animals and also in different species," Dr. Ellen Bronson, Director of Animal Health at the Maryland Zoo, said. "That's really important to us. That we know...we can expect it to be safe across the various species."

Vaccinations will focus on three primary groups: primates, Felidaes [the cat family], and Mostelas [the weasel family].  

“We know from the animals that have gotten natural infection that those were the most susceptible,” Bronson said. 

Credit: WUSA 9

Investigators are still trying to figure out why these groups are more susceptible. That remains unclear and the CDC says more research is needed

They do know, however, that coronavirus infection in animals presents similar symptoms to human-like coughing, lethargy and loss of appetite. But humans present a real threat to susceptible animals because they can transmit the virus.

“The animals at the zoo are also susceptible to people coming to the zoo that aren't vaccinated and could be carrying COVID,” Bronson said. “For the sake of all of us, get vaccinated because it's not only helping yourself and your loved ones in our community, but also our animals at the zoo.”


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