Ebola was once seen as an obscure but deadly virus. Confined to Central Africa, the pathogen didn’t seem to pose a serious threat to the rest on the world. But due to the recent outbreak that presumption has now changed. The 2004 death toll for Ebola ranges between 4 and 5 thousand people in West Africa and one in Texas.
Finding ways to treat and beat Ebola is not new. The Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio has been searching for a vaccine for Ebola for over 10 years. And in order to move forward, that research frequently turns to monkeys as test subjects, a practice that some would like to see stopped.
Snack time is a rambunctious time for the macaques at Texas Biomed. Hundreds of excited monkeys squeak, whoop, scamper and scurry as a worker tosses quartered apples to them as he walks down the line of outdoor cages. Don Taylor is in charge of taking care of the animals. He points out an adolescent macaque who is showing off.
“You see that little guy right there? He’s challenging us. He’s bobbing his head down. They just want to show us how big they are,” said Taylor.
Aside from humans, macaques are the most widely distributed primates on the planet. These highly social and adaptable animals can be found in the wild from Gibraltar to Japan. And they share another trait with humans – a big chunk of the genome. That’s what makes them useful for scientists, like Jean Patterson, who is looking for ways to stop the deadly Ebola virus.
“They have an immune system that’s very similar to human and they show disease that’s very similar to humans,” said Patterson.
Patterson is the Chair of the Department of Virology and immunology at Texas BioMed. She and other scientists here are searching for ways to better detect Ebola, find more successful treatment drugs and, above all, develop a vaccine. And now that Ebola is killing thousands, their work has taken on a new intensity.
“We are working at capacity right now. We have been for a number of years and we will be for a number of years. So, we can’t really do much more than we are already doing. But it certainly has created some urgency in what we are doing,” she said.
But working to develop medical answers to the Ebola virus is limited because it is extremely dangerous. There are only six facilities in North America allowed to handle Ebola and other killer microbes. These Level 4 Biosafety labs are required to be highly secure, be air tight, have fail safe plans and be closely monitored. There’s one at Texas BioMed and Scientist Anthony Griffiths gives me the tour.
“To go into the lab, underneath your suit you wear scrubs,” he said.
I could only get as far as the lab’s front door, its thick stainless steel with a reinforced triangle shaped window and there’s a large yellow sticker that declares caution. This heavy-duty portal is the entry to an airlock where there’s a shower of disinfectant. It’s on the other side of the airlock where the researchers like Juan Zapata work while incased in a bright yellow full-body hazmat suits.
He says he’s not nervous at all dealing with Ebola. “No. Seriously no. It’s what I do,” he said.
Juan is stepping into and zipping up his custom-made rubber suit. Then comes the pressure air hose that snaps into place. Now he’s ready to work. He’ll spend between 2 and 4 hours doing his job as a veterinarian research technician. He’s needed because it’s not just vials of Ebola in the Level 4 Biosaftey lab. Macaques are also in there that have been infected with Ebola. And they need to be cared for.
“The animal would be vaccinated before it went into the lab. They’ll be monitored closely to maintain their comfort as best as we can. Then at some point the vaccine has either succeeded or failed and we will analyses elements of the animal and that happens at necropsy, which is an autopsy in a human,” said Griffiths.
There are animal rights groups that question the use of monkeys and other animals for this type of research. Kathleen Conlee is the Vice President of Animal Research Issues for the Humane Society of the United States.
“We have concerns about the use of animals in research, particularly when we uncover that there are minimal animal welfare laws that are being broken as we found at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute,” said Conlee.
The Humane Society recently conducted an undercover investigation at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and identified problems with the handling of the primates – including the deaths of a baboon and two Macaques who were strangled by getting tangled by door cables in their cages.
“We are working towards the day when no animals are used in harmful research and until that day comes we feel that law should be followed. And ending primate research should be an urgent priority,” she said.
Conlee says she is opposed to using animals for medical research on both ethical and practical grounds. And she says other methods could be used to develop medical breakthroughs like a cure for Ebola. But Robert Lanford, a scientist at the Texas Biomed and the director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center, says without using the macaques there would be no way to find a vaccine for Ebola.
“It is acutely aware now that we have a virus spreading across Africa and threatening to leave that continent and go to other continents that the public appreciates the work we are doing in non-human primates,” said Lanford.
Lanford says inspections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have found areas where animal care needed to be improved – but that is the normal process and those issues have been addressed.
“The USDA said this shouldn’t occur, redesign your cages. We redesigned every cage on campus. We use the USDA recommendations as a mechanism to improve our program,” he said.
The World Health Organization is predicting deaths from the Ebola outbreak could exceed 20 thousand in Africa. The Center for Disease Control has a much scarier number -- over a million infections by mid-January. Which prediction becomes true? We’ll have to wait and see. But there’s no doubt that Ebola will now have a permanent presence in West Africa. And it will be a constant threat to every part of the globe. It’s going to cost billions of dollars to fight Ebola. Another cost is the lives of the macaques. That raises the ethical question each of us should address as the urgent search continues for the elusive Ebola vaccine.