Field of Science

Can we prevent gorilla extinction with vaccination?

Western Lowland gorilla
Gorillas, Gorilla spp. are found only throughout central African rainforest where there are in total over 200,000 individuals living in the wild. Two gorilla species are recognised, split between east and west Africa with at least two sub-species recognized in both. Their numbers are rapidly decreasing with problems such as habitat loss, poaching and human war contributing  greatly to a rapid reduction in their numbers. Sadly, one other factor on top of these in which these large primates must worry about is that of the transfer of infectious agents arising from humans and other animals. 

Viruses are constantly being transferred between populations of animals but may not establish infection all that easily in a non-host species. Although occasionally infection will result in virus replication and significant disease and this is known as a zoonotic infection -  when non-human viruses are transmitted to humans (see HIV, Influenza A and SARS-coronaviruses) and 'reverse zoonosis' when human viruses infect other animals. This pathogen transfer may be especially important when occurring in a critically endangered species such as gorillas; one recent example is that of human metapneumovirus.

EBOV effects not just humans

We have been able to detect the effect of a number of viruses on gorilla populations including enteroviruses, adenoviruses and parvoviruses for example, although a small number are known to cause disease. In the last decade thousands of gorillas, chimpanzees and other mammals were killed through infection with the Zaire strain of ebola virus (EBOV) in the rainforests throughout the Congo basin area of central Africa. EBOV is a highly infectious and deadly RNA filovirus which causes a nearly always fatal hemorrhagic fever. The reservoir species for EBOV has been linked to central African fruit bat populations and ebola has caused hundreds of human deaths since its first recorded emergence in the 1970s.  Significantly more non-human primates have been victim to ebola than humans. We can implement a number of control measures for example limiting human-ape contact especially when ill to prevent this virus transfer but this may be more difficult when humans are not involved as in the case of EBOV. There are also a number of therapeutic options available although in the case of ape infection, would be logistically impossible. One strategy we therefore must consider is that of potentially protecting these Gorilla populations through vaccination against a number of potential viral pathogens.

The group VaccinApe is attempting to do just that. A volunteer consortium lead by the charity group the World Wildlife Fund, a vaccine developer Integrated Biotherapuetics and two academic institutions, the Max Plank institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Kansas state University, VaccinApe is trying to develop an easy and effective method of vaccinating Gorilla populations in the wild. Currently in a 'proof of concept' phase, the group will lead the development of non-human primate vaccinology in order to generate a safe and reliable Ebola virus vaccine to be used through darting of individual gorillas. A large scale vaccination program may therefore afford protection of critically endangered gorilla populations against future EBOV emergences.

In light of the clinical severity of EBOV infection in humans a number of potential vaccine candidates have been developed which rely upon the generation of a protective immune response specifically to EBOV. One main candidate the group are interested in is the EBOV virus-like particles (VLPs). These are effectively non-infectious viruses lacking a viral genome but retaining virus antigenic proteins. Therefore EBOV-specific immunity will be generated against whatever EBOV proteins are found within the VLP. In early trials in macaques, this VLP strategy protected individuals against EBOV challenge although whether this could safely be transferred to gorillas isn't known.

EBOV VLP. Looks and acts antigenically like 'live' ebola.

Endangered wild gorilla and chimpanzee populations are at a great risk from a number of emerging viruses with the most important being EBOV. The difficulties in preventing direct transmission/therapeutic intervention have led people to consider the development of anti-EBOV vaccines. A number of candidates have already been tested and proved safe and effective in non-human primate models possibly allowing these vaccines to be transferred to gorilla population testing. It is hardly surprising that the work required to carry out such large-scale and difficult vaccination campaigns in wild gorillas in the African rain forest will be extremely difficult. The main problems include safety/efficacy testing in gorillas, physical vaccination methods and tracking anti-EBOV immunity non-invasively. Despite these difficulties, only time will tell whether the work of VaccinApe and their partners is to be supported as a worthwhile investment to save these animals.

Le Gouar PJ, Vallet D, David L, Bermejo M, Gatti S, Levréro F, Petit EJ, & Ménard N (2009). How Ebola impacts genetics of Western lowland gorilla populations. PloS one, 4 (12) PMID: 20020045

Richardson JS, Dekker JD, Croyle MA, & Kobinger GP (2010). Recent advances in Ebolavirus vaccine development. Human vaccines, 6 (6), 439-49 PMID: 20671437

Warfield KL, Swenson DL, Olinger GG, Kalina WV, Aman MJ, & Bavari S (2007). Ebola virus-like particle-based vaccine protects nonhuman primates against lethal Ebola virus challenge. The Journal of infectious diseases, 196 Suppl 2 PMID: 17940980


  1. I, personally, am a fan pf the DNA prime boost strategy - though more difficult with a gorilla population-

  2. Hi, thanks for the paper. If we could somehow get around the problems associated with delivering the vaccine multiple times easily, this would great as I bet there are a lot more ebola viruses out there which we known nothing about and which could massively effect gorilla populations.



Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS