Saving the Asian elephant: World first pilot study of new vaccine to fight elephant virus begins in UK and Irish zoos

Blackpool Zoo is proud to support Chester Zoo in a pilot study, searching for the world’s first vaccine to fight a deadly herpes virus in Asian elephants.

A pilot study of a new vaccine that aims to educate the immune system of the Asian elephant to fight a deadly virus that is threatening the survival of the endangered species globally has begun at Chester Zoo; supported by Blackpool Zoo and other major conservation zoos in the UK and Ireland, including Dublin Zoo, Whipsnade Zoo and Woburn Safari Park.

Early tests showed the jab – developed as a result of a long term collaboration led by scientists at the University of Surrey and Chester Zoo – stimulates an immune response after vaccination.

It is the first vaccine of its kind ever to enter a pilot study with elephants, anywhere in the world.

A vaccine that can protect Asian elephants, listed as endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, is widely viewed by conservationists as the best hope for tackling the virus, known as elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV).

EEHV is a major threat to the long-term survival of the Asian elephant, of which just 40,000 now remain. Reports of wild elephant fatalities at the hands of the disease are on the rise in India, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand, while cases have been recorded in five further countries across its native range, as well as in zoo conservation breeding programmes worldwide.

Without the expertise and opportunities for close contact offered by zoos caring for the species, experts say it would be “almost impossible” to develop a vaccine, which, if successful, could help to prevent the extinction of the species.

Dr Falko Steinbach, Professor of Veterinary Immunology at the University of Surrey, said: “This is an important moment in our research. Now that we have entered a pilot study stage there is real optimism we can find a safe vaccine that works.

“We are, however, not getting ahead of ourselves. While this is a significant step in right direction, and the initial signs are positive, these are still early days.”

Darren Webster, Director of Blackpool Zoo, added: “Despite being in the very early stages of the study, the initial results are encouraging and we are proud to be supporting our colleagues at Chester Zoo.

“This is a great example of zoos working together, across the UK and beyond, to preserve our most iconic species.”

Posted in Conservation, Research, Welfare.