Experimental US vaccine promises to reduce Covid-19 risks for animals

By Ana Mengotti

Miami, Oct 27 (EFE).- Earlier this month, Covid-19 claimed the life of a lion, Ekundu, who had contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the zoo where he lived in Hawaii.

Although Ekundu had pre-existing health problems, the big cat may have survived had he been administered an experimental, animal-targeted vaccine that has been developed by New Jersey-based drug company Zoetis.

“When the first dog was infected with Covid-19 in Hong Kong in (February) 2020, we immediately began to work on a vaccine that could be used in animals,” Mahesh Kumar, senior vice president of global biologics at Zoetis, the world’s largest producer of medicine and vaccinations for pets and livestock, said in remarks to Efe.

He said the initial safety studies for the vaccine were completed in eight months and were then presented at last year’s edition of the World One Health Congress, an event that aims to expand collective understanding of animal-human disease transmission in the context of its social and environmental determinants.

Zoetis’ vaccine is not currently on the market and is only authorized for experimental use on a case-by-case basis by United States Department of Agriculture veterinary authorities.

The company has donated Covid-19 vaccine doses to nearly 70 zoos and a dozen conservatories, sanctuaries, academic institutions and governmental organizations located in 27 US states, a spokesman for the Parsippany, New Jersey-based company told Efe.

As of Oct. 25, US veterinary public health officials had registered 290 confirmed coronavirus cases in animals nationwide, mostly in cats (100) and dogs (89).

Lions accounted for the third-highest number of cases (35), followed by tigers (31), farm-raised minks (17), gorillas (13), snow leopards (11) and otters (7), as well as isolated cases in ferrets, pumas and coatis, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

In most of the cases registered at zoos or conservatories, the infected animals quickly recovered after receiving treatment, those institutions said.

But as is the case in human beings, Ekundu’s underlying health conditions made it more difficult for him to fight off Covid-19.

The only male of his species at the Honolulu Zoo, the lion was 13 years old and had been suffering from epilepsy, the zoo’s director, Linda Santos, said this week in announcing his death.

Moxy, a female lion at that facility who raised three cubs with Ekundu, began experiencing symptoms of a respiratory infection in early October and also tested positive for Covid-19.

But she responded well to treatment and is currently on a path to recovery, according to the zoo.

Zoetis’s experimental vaccine is uniquely formulated for animal species.

Although the virus, or antigen, is the same as in human Covid-19 vaccines, its carrier, or adjuvant, is different, the company says, adding that the unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used.

Mike McFarland, Zoetis’ chief medical officer, said for his part that the company is proud that its innovative research and development work and vaccine donations can help zoos provide a high standard of care to primates, big cats and other species and reduce the risks associated with Covid-19. EFE


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