The Wildlife Conservation Society, with support from funders including the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, recently published their findings after spending over two years mapping the density and reach of the Ebola virus within an ape habitat in the Congo Basin.
From 2011-2013, four years prior to the current Ebola crisis, researchers began breaking new ground on understanding this elusive disease in animals, with a goal to find a way to detect the virus and potentially intervene early enough to halt ape deaths. Apes have been seriously impacted by Ebola over the last decade, with nearly one-third of the world's gorillas having died in recent outbreaks.
Discovering and halting the spread of this virus in animals is particularly important for public health, as Ebola in humans is directly linked to contact with infected wildlife carcasses, and outbreaks in animal populations usually precede human cases.
The project first identified that an Ebola virus was killing vulnerable ape populations in the Congo, and then implemented a new methodology for collecting samples. Rather than capturing and handling the animals to collect samples, scientists ensured their own safety and the safety of their subjects by collecting and testing ape feces from the forest floor. They tested the feces not only for the virus, but also for antibodies within the fecal matter; as some apes, like some humans, survived exposure and developed immunities. The findings from studying Ebola in apes will help scientists explore how the Ebola virus spreads, and lead to discoveries of possible vaccinations for both animals and humans.
“This new tool allows scientist to perform large, population-scale field assessments that can potentially change the way Ebola virus is studied,” according to the WCS.
This kind of research is particularly important now, with the death toll for the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa reaching over 5,000. Understanding outbreaks in wild great apes will not only protect an endangered species, but can also offer insights into the prevention of outbreaks in human populations.
This project epitomizes the type of pioneering research that Paul Allen and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation supports; pushing knowledge to the next level and applying that knowledge to solve real-world problems. Paul Allen has committed at least $100 million to help tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. That commitment includes funding vital research that will allow scientists and public health officials to better understand and treat this disease where it starts, in animals.