Saving Apes From Ebola: Harms, Benefits and Probabilities

Recently, in a New York Times Op-Ed, Dr. Peter Walsh made the case that curtailing biomedical research on chimpanzees may negatively impact the ability for conservationists to save that species in the wild. It's a compelling argument on the surface, pitting animal protection groups who have cried victory in helping eliminate the invasive use of chimpanzees for medical research, against those invested in shielding chimpanzees in Africa from a very real threat: the Ebola virus.

But is it that simple?

Recent regulatory changes by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have re-grouped captive and wild chimpanzees as both deserving of endangered status and have granted all members of that species a number of protections. While these protections have been in place for wild chimpanzees for some time, only recently were their relatives living here in the United States placed under that same umbrella. But the threats to these two groups of chimpanzees are very different. Chimpanzees in the wild are under threat of massive human encroachment into their environments. The resulting habitat loss, hunting access and disease exposure that results from that encroachment threatens their precarious numbers which are now likely only 10 percent of what they were a century ago. It's difficult to estimate the number of wild chimpanzees that have died as a result of the Ebola virus specifically, but it almost certainly is in the thousands.

Chimpanzees in the United States face different challenges and until recently were legally bought and sold in the pet trade and used in a variety of biomedical experiments now deemed unnecessary by the National Institutes of Health. The progression to protect captive chimpanzees from harms has come as the result of hard-fought efforts by groups ranging from the Jane Goodall Institute, Humane Society of the United States and the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

So within that context comes this proposed plan to reinvigorate medical experimentation on captive chimpanzees to develop an Ebola vaccine for their wild counterparts. Need we really rob Peter to pay Paul? The answer to this certainly must consider not only the costs of the plan, but the probability that these potential benefits are realized.

Imagine a parent who would rather cash in his entire job earnings in order to buy a set of lottery tickets in the hopes that a massive payout would provide for his family. The intention is justified and the theoretical windfall would be game-changing, but the problem lies in the probability of success. What seems rarely discussed in descriptions of this vaccine proposal are the myriad of steps and potential challenges before the ultimate goal can be realized. One chimpanzee conservationist I spoke with, who has been studying wild populations for decades, called the entire plan "far-fetched" citing a list of difficulties, not the least of which would be developing a system to get a successful vaccine into thousands of chimpanzees who have no interest in receiving it.

Make no mistake, protecting wild apes must be a high priority and the threat of Ebola looms as a very real risk to those vulnerable populations. The spread of the virus, which we know is connected to the growing access that humans have to previously untouched habitats, requires new thinking and innovative solutions that address these fundamental issues. Reinvigorating an impetus for maintaining colonies of chimpanzees in biomedical labs, and volunteering them for tests that are certainly not in their individual best interests is a slippery slope: one that reverses the moral progress we have made on behalf of chimpanzees in this country and one that chimpanzee conservationists argue aren't likely to actually help the wild populations.