As the Ebola epidemic continues to sweep through West Africa, with no sign of abating, it has become more imperative that scientists discover how the disease is maintained in the wild and how it emerges in wildlife (i.e. bats which them spread it to other species. While previous Ebola investigations during the past three decades have depended heavily on blood or tissue samples collected from animals, those samples are not easy to obtain. However, thanks to a new breakthrough, a consortium of international scientists working with the Wildlife Conservation Society have developed a new method to study fecal samples from wild great apes to identify populations likely to have been exposed to the Ebola virus.
The virus strain responsible, for the outbreaks in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, and Guinea, (Zaire Ebola virus) has been associated with major declines in wild chimpanzee and gorilla populations in Central Africa as well. Human cases have tended to follow wildlife outbreaks, usually through the consumption of infected bush meat including infected bats.
Although ethical issues, as well as the cost and risk involved, make hands-on examination of wild great apes for research problematic,” stated WCS field veterinarian Dr. Kenneth Cameron. “This new methodology will make immunologic studies in wild apes safer and much easier, providing us with the a new way to detect antibodies formed in the bodies of animals who have survived Ebola infections and answer research questions that simply were beyond reach before. In addition, it represents a new tool for performing large, population-scale field assessments that can potentially change the way Ebola virus is studied and improve our understanding of the virus’ distribution in space and time—a matter of great importance to both the human health and conservation communities.”
“If scientists can better understand patterns of Ebola virus infection in wildlife, the public health sector can be more prepared to prevent human outbreaks., stated WCS veterinarian Alain Ondzie. “We need to learn how long the great apes’ antibodies persist or whether they confer protection against future infection will require further investigation, but their presence suggests that, as with humans, some apes survive Ebola virus infection. This information will allow researchers to identify regions where Ebola virus has emerged in wildlife and potentially which ape populations are most susceptible.
“It is fantastic that we can get this type of information from simply collecting fecal samples from the forest floor,” said study co-author Dr. Patricia Reed, who helped oversee this work as a wildlife veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). “From a wildlife conservation perspective, we can use this information to target our limited resources and get more information in-hand more quickly in order to protect great ape populations most at risk for new infections. And the more we learn about the ecology of this pathogen, the more we can proactively assist the public health community.”
Note: The om addition to Dr. Reed,co-authors of the above study,entitled “A New Approach for Monitoring Ebolavirus in Wild Great Apes” are: Sabue Mulangu of National Institutes of Health (NIH); Kenneth N. Cameron of WCS; Alain U. Ondzie of WCS; Damien Joly of WCS (formerly) and Metabiotia, Inc. (Canada); Magdalena Bermejo of the University of Barcelona (Spain); Pierre Rouquet of ECOFAX (Gabon); Giulia Fabozzi of NIH; Michael Bailey of NIH; Zhimin Shen of NIH; Brandon F. Keele of Frederick National Laboratory in Maryland; Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama, Birmingham and University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; William B. Karesh of WCS (formerly) and Ecohealth Alliance; and Nancy J. Sullivan of NIH.