Scientists said Thursday they have developed a vaccine to shield endangered chimpanzees and gorillas against Ebola, which has wiped out tens of thousands of the wild apes in three decades.
The vaccine is given orally, the developers said, which means it could be disguised in food and left out for the animals to eat – easier and less traumatic than darting.
"Our closest relatives are being driven rapidly towards extinction by diseases like Ebola, by commercial bushmeat hunting and by habitat loss, and for a lot of this we are responsible," said Peter Walsh of the University of Cambridge, who took part in the research.
"We now have this technology that can help save them, and there is a moral obligation that we should do it," he told AFP.
In laboratory tests with ten chimpanzees, the vaccine – dubbed filorab1 – was shown to be safe and to generate "a robust immune response" to the Ebola virus, researchers reported in the journal Scientific Reports.
Walsh is now developing a system for putting the vaccine into bait that apes will eat in the wild. Only then can the vaccine be rolled out, to gorillas first and chimps later.
Ebola was first identified in what was then Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – in 1976.
Since then, there have been several outbreaks of the disease which is deadly to all members of the primate family, including humans. A vaccine that works on one primate species is likely to be effective for them all.
Ebola "has already killed about a third of gorillas in the world," said Walsh – amounting to "tens of thousands" of animals.
Gorillas and chimps tend to live in densely forested areas, and are extremely shy of humans – making their population numbers hard to track.
"When there is an outbreak in a local area, 95 or 90 percent of the gorillas die," said Walsh.