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In Campaign To Prevent Ebola, A Vaccine For Apes Could Save Humans, Too


The spread of Ebola in West Africa has also had a major effect on wildlife in the area. The virus can infect gorillas and chimps, and some researchers are now developing a vaccine to prevent Ebola's spread among the animals. I spoke to one of those researchers, Peter Walsh of the University of Cambridge. And I asked him, with all the human suffering caused by Ebola why he was working on a vaccine for the animals.

PETER WALSH: Well, actually gorillas and chimpanzees are one of the major intermediate hosts for Ebola transmission from - we think bats is the reservoir to humans. Our best guess at this point is that both bats and gorillas and chimpanzees eat fruit. So what's probably happening is that bats are going to a fruiting, then the gorilla comes along, eat some of the fruit, gets infected itself, infects its family and infects the neighboring community of gorillas. And then there's a bunch of dead gorillas on the ground, and the local villagers eat the meat, and then they get infected, and then you start one of these outbreaks.

RATH: So how bad is Ebola as a problem for apes in Africa?

WALSH: These outbreaks started in the mid-'90s and have continued over the last 25 years. I have a friend in Republic of Congo named Magdalena Bermejo, and she spent her life habituating this community of gorillas. In 2002 and 2003, it just killed 95 percent of them - killed all of her babies, really. And that's repeatedly happened over the last 25 years to the point where we've lost maybe about a third of the gorillas and a lot of chimps. We don't have a quite as good a number on chimps, but a lot.

RATH: So you've been working on a vaccine for apes. First, can you explain - 'cause this is kind of interesting - how do you convince a wild gorilla to sit for a vaccination? Or I imagine you can't get them to do that.

WALSH: That's the problem. They're hunted, so they're afraid of people.

RATH: Right.

WALSH: So the ones that we've habituated that are in the tourist program we can shoot with a dart, but most of them we can't. So we're sort of copying the way that rabies is controlled in the states and in Europe, which is with an oral bait. And so what we're doing now is we're doing a vaccine trial. A colleague of mine named Matthias Schnell at Thomas Jefferson University has taken a little piece of Ebola, and he has put it into that rabies vaccine. And lo and behold, it protects against both rabies and Ebola.

RATH: So you're moving along with this research, but we've heard that on September 15, new restrictions are coming for the use of chimpanzees for biomedical research. Can you talk about how that could affect your work?

WALSH: It's going to be a catastrophe for us because the people in Africa won't let us use the vaccine in Africa unless it's been extensively tested in captive animals. And so if they shut down all these facilities, then we're not going to have any place to do our trials and then eventually go to Africa.

RATH: And there's no way around that? There's no way you can get, like, an exception or something like that?

WALSH: The problem is that these facilities are - were set up for human biomedical research to develop vaccines and drugs for humans. And if they're not allowed to do the human research anymore, then there's nobody to pay for the maintenance of the animals. Just on a business basis, they'll have to shut the facilities down, and we won't have any place to work.

RATH: We talked a bit about Ebola in humans and in apes, but could you just sort of give us a sense here of what happens if Ebola goes unchecked in apes - the threat that it poses to both ape and human populations?

WALSH: For apes, it's a big threat. As I said, it's already killed a third of the gorilla population. It's effectively 100 percent lethal. Once they get it, they're going to die. And furthermore, this isn't just about Ebola. There's other diseases. Like, when we go over there and we catch a cold on the plane and then we (coughs), then the gorilla gets it, and the gorilla dies. And that's a major source of mortality in those tourism populations. They also get malaria. They get the ancestor of HIV-AIDS. They get anthrax. And what we're trying to do with these trials is not protect against Ebola, but this oral vaccination developed a technology with which we can protect them. Because if we don't protect them, on the scale of 30 to 50 years, they're going to be out of there.

RATH: Peter Walsh is a researcher at the University of Cambridge. He's been working to create an oral vaccine to protect gorillas and chimpanzees from Ebola. Peter, thanks for joining us.

WALSH: Thanks a lot, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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