New molecular diagnostic methods have revealed that wild apes die from a variety of naturally occurring diseases such as Anthrax, simian immunodeficiency virus (the source of human HIV-AIDS), and Ebola virus, which killed roughly a third of the world gorilla population in outbreaks stretching back to the mid-1990’s. Diseases that “spill over” from humans are also a major threat, including gut parasites from local villagers and respiratory diseases that account for about half of deaths in gorillas and chimpanzees habituated to human approach for research and tourism. Vaccines and treatments that protect against many of these diseases are available. Unfortunately, the strident opposition of a vocal minority opposed to medical intervention has to date prevented vaccination from becoming a weapon in the ape conservation arsenal.
To demonstrate that vaccination could be a safe and cost-effective tool for ape conservation, ApesInc has conducted two vaccine trials. Our Ebola vaccine trial was the first time that captive chimpanzees were used to test a vaccine intended to protect wild apes rather than humans. Our trial of a measles vaccine on wild gorillas was the first controlled vaccine study on wild apes and the first study of any wildlife species to use non-invasive methods to assay for immunization. Because the studies have yet to be published the only comment we will make about their success is a wink and a nod. We plan additional vaccine trials in the future, but much of our current work focuses on developing technologies that enhance and validate vaccination as an ape conservation tool.
Projects that Need Funding:
Non-Invasive Assay of immunity:
Because immobilizing wild apes to draw blood is dangerous for apes and veterinary crews, our current focus is on developing improved laboratory methods for demonstrating that vaccination has resulted in a robust immune response. This includes developing assays for isolating both antibodies and, for “live virus” vaccines, viral nucleic acids (RNA orDNA) from feces, urine and saliva. The first stage of this study will use samples already collected from our wild gorilla vaccine trial. Initial project costs are for one year of postdoctoral support and laboratory supplies.
Oral Vaccine Baits:
Although darting is a good “one off” solution for delivering vaccine, it becomes progressively more difficult and dangerous as apes learn to associate that funny man with the blow pipe with an uncomfortable prick in the butt. Darting is also not realistic for the large majority of apes that are not habituated to approach by humans. The obvious solution is to deliver vaccine in oral baits similar in concept if not in composition to those which have allowed the virtual eradication of fox rabies from Western Europe. We have previously conducted pilot work on oral baiting of captive chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans and wild gorillas. We are now seeking support for a postdoctoral fellow to conduct a one year study on how to package oral baits and deliver them to wild gorillas.