After millions of Quebecers rolled up their sleeves for COVID-19 vaccines, it could soon be zoo animals' turn to get the shot.
The Granby Zoo, east of Montreal, says it is hoping in the coming weeks or months to vaccinate against COVID-19 about 90 animals, including gorillas, big cats and other creatures deemed susceptible to the disease. The vaccines are in the United States awaiting clearance to Canada.
"Hopefully, we can start at least a few species by Christmas. I’m crossing my fingers for that," Emilie Couture, a veterinarian with the zoo, said in a recent interview.
She said the zoo is planning to vaccinate the species that appear to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Primates and big cats such as tigers, jaguars and leopards top the list, she said, adding that the zoo is also including some other mammals such as red pandas.
There has been a "worrying" rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in North American zoos, especially among large felines such as lions and leopards, Couture said. Last week, three snow leopards died at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, in Nebraska, of complications from COVID-19 — an event that she said shocked the North American zoo community.
"Contrary to the first reports of disease early in the pandemic with the large felids, where they seem to have some respiratory signs but eventually recovered without significant disease, there is actually more severe diseases leading to death, even if institutions housing and caring for these animals already had biosecurity measures in place," Couture said.
Many scientists believe that, like in humans, the more contagious Delta variant is to blame for the rise in cases and severe disease, she added.
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The vaccines are manufactured by U.S. veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis, which began offering them to American zoos this summer. The company has offered to donate approximately 900 doses — enough for 450 animals — to six Canadian zoos. In a statement, Zoetis said its vaccines were specifically developed and formulated for animals and that like those destined for humans, they are meant to be given in two doses, several weeks apart.
The next step is getting the vaccines across the border, which could still take weeks or months. Because the vaccine is not commercially available, Zoetis said it's applying for experimental use authorization with the Canadian Centre for Veterinary Biologics and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Couture said none of the animals at the Granby Zoo have developed symptoms of COVID-19 that would necessitate a test. Nevertheless, she said the zoo has taken steps throughout the pandemic to protect the animals, including increased cleaning, cutting out backstage visits, reducing hands-on interactions and requiring handlers to wash their hands and wear masks.
Couture said humans appear to pose the biggest threat to animals when it comes to spreading COVID-19. So far, there isn't direct evidence of zoo animals infecting their handlers, she said.
"The only source of infection for (the animals) would be if an asymptomatic human would be taking care of them," she said.
The Toronto and Calgary zoos both said they would also be vaccinating their animals once a shot becomes available. Toronto added that about 140 of its animals would be eligible, including primates, big cats and swine.
Both, like Granby, are waiting for the Zoetis vaccine, since no Canadian companies are offering a shot designed for animals.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2021.