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Sea otters vaccinated for COVID-19 at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

MONTEREY, Calif. (KION) The sea otters who call the Monterey Bay Aquarium home are rolling up their invisible sleeves to receive their COVID-19 vaccine. The eight otters who currently live at the aquarium have all received their shots.

Dr. Michael Murray, who is the Jane Dunaway Director of Veterinary Services at the aquarium, says the vaccine is different than the human dose. It was donated to the aquarium by animal drug company Zoetis. They began administering the vaccine back in August.

"I felt based on the information I had that it was safe for sea otters and most likely effective. They had a lot of data in very, very close cousins, i.e. the mink, that it was a safe vaccine, that it was efficacious," said Dr. Murray. "We have vaccinated all of them now and have not had any problems. They have not missed a beat, or a meal."

The aquarium received approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the USDA, before moving forward with the vaccinations. Dr. Murray says otters at the New York Aquarium have also received the experimental Zoetis vaccine.

None of the Southern sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have tested positive for COVID. However, they are at risk. A group of Asian small-clawed otters at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta all tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, back in April 2021. The aquarium says the animals all showed symptoms, including sneezing, runny noses, lethargy and coughing.

There have also been deadly outbreaks among minks, who are close cousins of otters.

"We have a responsibility to the animals that are under our care to do everything we can to protect and ensure their health. And I think it would be irresponsible on our part not to offer them protection, if protection is available," said Dr. Murray.

In order to vaccinate the otters — they were netted, and held down with a sack of foam while the needle was inserted.

"The vaccination process, once we have the animal in the net, is done in a matter of seconds. They don't get a sucker. They don't get a Band-Aid either," said Dr. Murray.

The animals are then monitored for the next few days to make sure they're not experiencing any side effects. Dr. Murray says none of the otters have had an adverse reaction.

Southern sea otters are listed as a threatened species, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been working to help protect the species since 1984. They are well known for their sea otter rehabilitation program, caring for sick otters before releasing them back into the wild.

The aquarium says they're now looking into the possibility of adding this COVID vaccine to their regular preventative medicine program — so none of the sea otters that get released will be spreading the virus in the wild.

"I don't know specifically what effect a SARS-CoV-2 infection would have on free ranging sea otters. I can't imagine it's good, because they have to hunt for a living and they have to dive. Their respiratory system is so important."

Dr. Murray says the otters are the only animals at the aquarium who will be receiving the COVID vaccine — but they're still recommending shots for the humans who visit as well.

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Lisa Principi

Lisa Principi is a reporter at KION News Channel 5/46.

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