Ebola is best known as a killer of people, but the virus also causes epidemics in wildlife. Past outbreaks have devastated great ape populations, particularly gorillas, where the virus is estimated to have wiped out a third of the primates.
But, a new study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that a human Ebola vaccine can also protect the vulnerable primate populations from the disease.
“We vaccinate our children, we vaccinate livestock, we vaccinate our pets, we vaccinate wildlife — why aren’t we vaccinating our closest relatives?” Dr. Peter Walsh, from the University of Cambridge and the study’s leader, told the BBC.
A small trial was conducted on 10 animals, six given an oral dose of the drug and four were injected with it.
After 28 days, both groups of chimpanzees had high amounts of antibodies against Ebola in their blood.
“We found the vaccine gave a very robust immune response and didn’t cause any health complications,” said Dr Walsh.
The new find is signifigant because scientists believe the first patient in an outbreak becomes infected through contact with an infected animal, such as a fruit bat or primate (apes and monkeys), according to the CDC.
Still, there are a number of hurdles before the vaccine can be used in the wild. Most parts of the world have bans on great ape research and a new rule issued by the U.S. government in 2016 requires a permit under the Endangered Species Act.
Although the U.S rule allows research on captive chimps if it benefits wild populations, primate sanctuaries and zoos were either unwilling or unequipped to carry out trials.
In what researchers describe as a “horrible irony,” they say these reforms — a victory for long-standing campaigns by animal welfare groups — will ultimately prove detrimental to chimpanzees, gorillas (and humans), as any vaccination for wild animals must be tested in captivity first to ensure its safety.
Consequently, the promising new vaccine model may never progress to the point where it can be used to inoculate endangered wild apes.