New Iberia tests Ebola vaccine on chimpanzees

Scientists who believe they’ve developed medicine to stem deadly Ebola outbreaks among apes in Africa relied heavily on vaccine trials conducted on chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center.

The New Iberia center tested a “virus-like” vaccine that coaxes the immune systems of apes to develop protections against infectious diseases, including the Ebola virus, according to an article published online Tuesday by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“They’ve been working on this vaccine for years,” said Joe Simmons, director of the center in New Iberia where the scientists took their vaccines for testing over a year ago.

Simmons said the NIRC trials on chimpanzees took place at the New Iberia center before he arrived as director in June. He said it sometimes takes years to publish an article about breakthroughs in a known scientific journal.

A major reason the paper’s publication was delayed was due to the ongoing debate among scientists and others on whether it’s ethical to test vaccines, some of which contain deadly viruses, on animals, Simmons said.

Simmons said the paper was released in spite of the ethics arguments because of an outbreak last month of the Zaire strain of Ebola in West Africa, the same strain tested on the chimpanzees at the New Iberia center.

The paper was written by a team of nine scientists led by Peter Walsh, a lecturer on primates at the University of Cambridge in England.

Walsh said on his website apesinc.org that animal rights activists are hindering progress in stopping Ebola and other deadly threats that threaten the extinction of primates.

“Before we can use (vaccines) in the wild we have to test them in captivity to make sure they’re safe,” Walsh said.

The U.S., among the last countries that allows vaccine testing on animals, is fast moving toward outlawing the practice, Walsh said.

“That’s going to mean, in the most brutal terms, dead chimpanzees and gorillas,” Walsh said.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette-New Iberia center, located 20 miles from the school’s main campus, houses more than 6,000 primates, including 200 chimpanzees.

“(The trials) are believed to be the first time that a vaccine intended for apes — rather than humans — has been tested on captive chimpanzees,” UL-Lafayette said in a news release.

Simmons said the NIRC was not paid to conduct the trials. He said NRIC and UL-Lafayette opted to fund the trials “because we thought it was the right thing to do.”

“It’s our way of giving back to the chimps that have given us so much,” he said.

Simmons said NIRC officials and researchers want to take part in the next phase of saving apes in Africa: figuring out how to round up and vaccinate primates who roam in the jungles. He said NIRC has joined forces with the nonprofit organization VaccinApe on how to implement the vaccinations.

Walsh and Simmons said trial results also show the vaccine could be used to protect humans one day.

UL-Lafayette, citing figures from the World Health Organization, said a recent outbreak of the Zaire strain of Ebola killed 175 of the 250 humans who contracted the virus in West Africa.

Simmons said a vaccine for humans could come as a result of the NIRC’s work, but that’s a ways off.

“The bar will have to be set really high for humans,” he said.