Clinical trials for a Covid vaccine for animals are underway in India after two lions in a zoo in Chennai succumbed to Covid infection, specifically the Delta variant.

The National Research Centre on Equines under the aegis of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR-NRCE) is developing the vaccine candidate Ancovax, which has already been tested on lab animals and canines of the Indian Army.

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Sources said following the Chennai Zoo incident, the Government of India was concerned about the virus moving from humans to animals and back to humans. This they said could lead to mutations in the virus and turn it into a variant of concern, perhaps even one as deadly as Delta or worse. If we want to end the pandemic, we need to protect the animals as well, said an official.

Dr Naveen Kumar, Principal Scientist of Veterinary Virology at ICAR-NRCE, and the Principal Investigator of the vaccine candidate said they have received primary approval from the Central Zoo Authority and the selected five sites (zoos) to conduct clinical trials on lions and leopards since the same has already been done on dogs. The vaccine candidate was found to be safe and induced potent antibody responses in the canines, said Kumar. We are now awaiting regulatory approvals to conduct the trials in the zoos since these are Schedule-l animals, he said.

The five sites (zoos) for clinical trials are one each in Delhi, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka, Notably, clinical testing on Schedule-4 animals, including lions and leopards, require the approval of the Chief Wildlife Warden of the respective state. On the issue of approving covid vaccine clinical trials on lions and leopards at Sakkarbaug Zoo in Junagadh, Shyamal Tikadar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and Chief Wildlife Warden of Gujarat said conducting such trials on Schedule-l animals is a very serious matter. We have received no communication regarding the same from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC).We cannot just give permission on the basis of emails from a research institute. We will consider the request once it comes through the union ministry, he said.

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