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Why researchers are racing to test an Ebola vaccine for apes

Over the years the Ebola virus has wiped out a significant number of great apes, threatening to reduce those populations to vulnerable levels. In Louisiana, a controversial effort is underway to conduct vaccine tests on captive chimpanzees in order to save wild chimps and gorillas against the deadly virus. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    When the Ebola epidemic spread through West Africa last year, the focus was on the human toll of the virus.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien looks at the controversial race to develop a vaccine, this time with animals in mind.

    With Ebola thinning their ranks in Africa, 10 captive chimpanzees in Louisiana are enduring one last medical experiment focused not on human health, but, rather, the survival of their species. They are receiving an experimental Ebola vaccine.

    PETER WALSH, University of Cambridge: I don't really like to see chimps in a cage. It kind of upsets me a little bit. But I weigh the individual welfare of those chimpanzees against the survival of wild chimpanzees.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Disease ecologist Peter Walsh is leading a controversial effort to vaccinate wild chimps and gorillas against the deadly Ebola virus.

  • PETER WALSH:

    It killed, I would say, roughly a third of the gorilla population and a bunch of chimpanzees. We don't have good numbers, but we know, from based on how much area it affected, we're talking about a third of the gorillas.

  • KENNETH CAMERON, Wildlife Conservation Society:

    You could say that Ebola has decimated portions of the great ape population.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Kenneth Cameron is a field veterinarian with the Wildlife Conservation Society based in the Republic of Congo. We met at the Bronx Zoo, which is run by the WCS.

    Over the years, the virus has wiped out entire local populations of apes, 10,000 to 15,000 fatalities at a time.

  • KENNETH CAMERON:

    I don't think that anybody really believes that Ebola virus is going to result in the extinction of western lowland gorillas or central chimpanzees, for that matter. But what it may do is reduce the populations to such a degree that the other threats, such as excessive logging, habitat loss and hunting pressure, may finally lead to the demise of the species.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    With the stakes that high, Peter Walsh believes the end justifies the means in this case. We met him at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, New Iberia Research Center, the largest primate testing facility in the U.S.

    Captive trials make it easier to limit the variables and apply strict scientific controls to an experiment.

  • PETER WALSH:

    There's no free lunch. And the cost of lunch here is that we're going to do vaccine trials on captive chimpanzees in order to save the ones in the wild. That's the trade-off. And that — it's a messy world, you know? That's just the way it is. If I could do it without doing the captive trials, I would do it. But I can't.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    But there is a lot of heated debate about whether it is necessary to use captive chimpanzees in this vaccine trial.

    Brian Hare strongly objects.

  • BRIAN HARE, Duke University:

    This is a Hail Mary. They are hoping that this could launch a new way to do research with chimpanzees.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Hare is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. He works, and plays, with apes in Central Africa. He says the vaccine experiments should be conducted there, in ape sanctuaries, where the animals live in relative freedom.

    I think they are just taking advantage of a bad situation in Africa to continue to get funds that they desperately need to pay for infrastructure at their essentially arcane laboratories. We can also go and do all of the types of research that used to be done in laboratories in the United States. We can do it now in these sanctuaries.

    So, I think the question really is not whether research needs to be done, but where it needs to be done.

  • PETER WALSH:

    The facilities here are comparable to a hospital, a human hospital. That's what we're dealing with. We go to Africa, we don't have that. It endangers the animals.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Medical testing of any kind on chimpanzees has long been a source of emotional debate. The vaccinations we witnessed occurred in the same facility where this gut-wrenching scene was captured, one of many like it recorded during a nine-month undercover investigation by the Humane Society in 2009.

    Andrew Rowan is president and CEO of Humane Society International. He spoke with us in 2012.

    ANDREW ROWAN, President and CEO, Humane Society International: What we found was that, frankly, well, a lot of suffering and conditions that we felt were inappropriate for chimpanzees. And so that's why we sort of came out and said, this is — this is ridiculous.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Jane Fontenot is the head of research resources at New Iberia.

  • JANE FONTENOT, New Iberia Research Center:

    There were things I would have definitely preferred to have been done differently. It's research. It's not always something that everybody wants to see.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    And, in fact, they wouldn't let us see them anesthetize the chimps in this study, instead releasing a brief clip showing a single compliant chimpanzee receiving an injection.

  • MAN:

    Good boy.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    We did get a brief tour of the sprawling facility. In addition to the 230 chimpanzees here, there are more than 6,000 other primates used in medical research. Managers here say they have learned some hard lessons, and the animals are treated humanely.

  • JANE FONTENOT:

    They will not be harmed. After the study is done, they will go back into their social groups. And it will have no long-term effect, other than they will have antibodies against Ebola.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Vaccinating wild animals is not an easy task. But it is not unprecedented. Vaccines protect buffalo at Yellowstone from brucellosis and stem the spread of rabies in wild raccoons and foxes in the U.S. and Europe. In fact, the safety and success of bait laced with the oral rabies vaccine gave immunologist Matthias Schnell the inspiration for his vaccine.

    A researcher at Thomas Jefferson University, he wondered if a tiny piece of the Ebola virus could hitchhike on the rabies vaccine.

  • MATTHIAS SCHNELL, Virologist, Thomas Jefferson University:

    What we did is actually putting in one Ebola gene which encodes for one important protein to get an immune response against the virus.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    They are racing to get all this done before September 14, when a federal rule goes into effect that will eliminate medical research on captive chimpanzees in the U.S.

    But there is one loophole: Experiments on chimps can continue if the goal is the preservation of the species itself. New Iberia must seek and obtain a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to continue this experiment. They have not made a decision whether to apply.

    Researchers would like to expand the trial beyond 10 individuals. But maintaining 230 chimps just for this one purpose may not make sense financially.

    RAMESH KOLLURU, University of Louisiana at Lafayette: Certainly, that is part of the calculation. But this is one of those rare opportunities that I believe we have, as a research university, as a community of scientist and researchers, to give something back.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Ramesh Kolluru is vice president for research at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.

  • RAMESH KOLLURU:

    For us, this is a great way of saying thank you to chimpanzees for all that they have done to help improve human health.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    If it all ends on the 14th, what happens to the research? Is it all for naught?

  • MATTHIAS SCHNELL:

    For now, it's really off, and we can't do what we like to do. So, we can't do any follow-up studies until it's approved. So, hopefully, that will change.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Dr. Schnell hopes he can gather enough data and make his vaccine stable without refrigeration in time for Peter Walsh to begin distributing oral vaccines among a half-dozen gorilla groups at two sites in Africa in early 2016.

    And they will also assess a technique to test for the Ebola antibodies in the chimpanzees' feces, essential to judge the success of vaccinations in the bush. If all goes well, Walsh will keep pushing for mass vaccinations of wild apes.

    But is that level of human intervention appropriate?

  • PETER WALSH:

    The problem is, we're intervening in so many other ways there in a bad way that we really — it's a moral imperative that we actually intervene in a good way sometime. And — and vaccination is a way that we can intervene in a good way.

    If we don't do this, we're going to lose our closest relatives.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    There are still big questions about how to vaccinate wild apes and if it's a good idea. But thousands of humans have now received experimental Ebola vaccines, with good results. So, in this case, humans may, in some small way, be the guinea pigs for the chimps.

    Miles O'Brien, the PBS NewsHour, New Iberia, Louisiana.

  • Editor’s note:

    Ramesh Kolluru, vice president for research at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, disputes the allegation that the New Iberia Research Center had a financial motive for supporting the Ebola vaccine trials referenced in the video, adding that "NIRC has — voluntarily and from the very beginning — paid all facility, personnel, and analysis expenses associated with these trials."

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