Wildlife & Biodiversity

Does your pet need a jab against COVID-19?

Animals are being administered experimental vaccines. But what do experts have to say?

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 27 August 2021

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has been with the world for nearly 20 months now. It has claimed the lives of more than four million people and is still claiming lives even as this story is being written. But even as humans have suffered immensely from a disease that was transferred to them from animals, what about animals themselves?

Zoetis, which brands itself as the largest global animal health company, “donated more than 11,000 doses of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine to help protect the health and well-being of more than 100 mammalian species living in nearly 70 zoos” in the US July 2, 2021.

This was in response to a whole troop of gorillas at the San Francisco Zoo getting infected.

Down To Earth called the company’s India office in Mumbai and was told that its US branch’s vaccine was not for commercial use and was donated in good faith. Further questions were not taken. Rather, DTE was asked to send a questionnaire the answers for which would be sent later.

Other experts DTE spoke to dismissed the need for a COVID-19 vaccine specifically for animals.

“Until about a decade ago, there used to be a coronavirus vaccine that used to be given to animals. But that was not a COVID-19 vaccine. It was a different strain and there was no zoonotic transmission,” Neha Panchamia, founder and president of Pune-based animal group, RESQ.

Panchamia said as far as her knowledge went, there was no COVID-19 vaccination available for animals in India. “Second, there has been no major data collection or studies done related to COVID-19 in India’s animals, both domestic and wild,” she added.

Should companies pool in efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine for animals? Panchamia replied:

At this point, the first thing that needs to be established is its prevalence in animals. Yes, animals have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. But these numbers are very isolated. Is COVID-19 in animals life-threatening? How is it manifesting among them? A lot needs to be studied before it can be said that a COVID-19 vaccine is warranted or justified for animals.

NVK Ashraf, a veterinarian from the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India, agreed that there was no need for a COVID-19 vaccine especially for animals currently:

I don’t think there is a need in principle for a COVID-19 vaccine.  It is a self-limiting disease as far as animals are concerned. If repeated outbreaks occur, then we might need one for animals.

He added that zoo authorities could always inject the human vaccine since the virus was the same. On the whole, however, animals’ susceptibility rate to COVID-19 was negligible.

“It usually happens only in carnivores, that too, large ones, or in minks. COVID-19 is still a human disease, not an animal husbandry or veterinary disease,” Ashraf said.

The background

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, belongs to the virus family known as coronaviruses. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Some coronaviruses cause cold-like illnesses in people, while others cause illness in certain types of animals, such as cattle, camels, and bats. Some coronaviruses, such as canine and feline coronaviruses, infect only animals and do not infect people.

SARS-CoV-2 first appeared in December 2019 at the Huanan Market in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province. Huanan, which is now closed, was a seafood market.

Around March 5, 2020, just a week before the World Health Organization declared a worlwd-wide pandemic, a dog belonging to a COVID-19 patient was found to be infected with SARS-CoV-2.

Later, lions and tigers in New York City’s Bronx Zoo got infected. Several others, including a troop of gorillas at San Francisco Zoo and mink at farms in Denmark got infected.

Chennai’s Vandalur Zoo too reported the death of two young lions in quick succession in what was claimed to be an attack of the Delta variant of COVID-19. 

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