Although an oral vaccine has been developed to treat Ebola in wild chimpanzees and other apes, it may be impossible to do any further research on it.

The chimpanzee population has been ravaged by Ebola. Photo: Shutterstock

Unbeknownst to many, Ebola is running rampant among chimpanzees and gorillas. One third of the world’s gorilla population has been lost to Ebola over the last 30 years. Coupled with poaching and habitat loss, diseases like Ebola and anthrax pose a serious threat to the survival of these species, which is why the news of a potentially valuable Ebola vaccine for wild apes is good news. It would be better news however, if it weren’t for the fact that is nearly impossible to continue the research.

Recent changes to endangered species laws have made biomedical testing on apes all but impossible. In the case of testing vaccines and other medicines on them for the benefit of humans, that seems reasonable to many people. But the problem is that, due to changing standards of care, it’s incredibly expensive to maintain populations of chimpanzees in order to do research that benefits them, even though that is still acceptable. The changes are a big win for animal rights groups, but could end up costing wild populations dearly.

“This may be the final vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees: a serious setback for efforts to protect our closest relatives from the pathogens that push them ever closer to extinction in the wild,” said lead researcher Dr. Peter Walsh from the University of Cambridge.

The Ebola vaccine can be delivered orally, meaning that treated bait could be used to vaccinate more apes than using darts or other techniques. But further tests are needed and those tests are now, likely, going to be very hard to do. Zoos are loath to allow testing, and it’s expensive for companies to keep captive chimps for testing of vaccines.

The United States was the last place where biomedical tests on chimpanzees were allowed, meaning that getting such research moved elsewhere will be difficult. Some kind of workaround needs to be developed, which will allow for further medical testing for the benefit of our closest non-human relatives.

Diseases like Ebola will continue to ravage wild ape populations, which means researchers need to be able to work on ways to cure them, and that requires experiments and studies.

“In an ideal world, there would be no need for captive chimpanzees,” said Dr. Walsh. “But this is not an ideal world. It is a world where diseases such as Ebola, along with rampant commercial poaching and habitat loss, are major contributors to rapidly declining wild ape populations…The major ethical debt we owe is not to a few captive animals, but to the survival of an entire species we are destroying in the wild: our closest relatives.”