Houston/ Parks & Nature
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Published on June 20, 2024
Houston Zoo Elephant Becomes First to Receive Breakthrough mRNA Vaccine Against Deadly VirusSource: Facebook/Houston Zoo

In what's being hailed as an innovative leap forward for animal health, Tess, the 40-year-old matriarch of the Houston Zoo's Asian elephant herd, has made a stride into medical history. Tess received the first-ever dose of an mRNA vaccine tailored to prevent the deadly elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, EEHV 1A, which has afflicted Asian elephant populations both in the wild and in captivity. Houston Chronicle detailed the June 18 event, marking this as a significant moment in animal health research.

The vaccine, created by BCM's Department of Virology and Microbiology in collaboration with the Houston Zoo, aims to protect against a virus that poses a serious threat to the survival of Asian elephants. Tess's inoculation serves as the first step in a broader effort to extend this protective measure to more members of the species. "She’s a great candidate for this, because we get regular routine blood collections on her and we can administer the vaccine and follow it along to make sure that it’s doing what we want the vaccine to do," Kristin Windle, Houston Zoo elephant supervisor, told the Houston Chronicle.

Post-vaccination, the Houston Zoo's veterinary team will closely watch Tess for any adverse reactions and measure her blood's antibody levels, a sign of the vaccine's effectiveness. This isn't just a small step for Tess; it's potentially a giant leap for elephant conservation worldwide. Over the next few weeks, experts will pay close attention to her health and any protective response generated by the vaccine. Success here could pave the way for broader vaccination programs, extending to elephants in human care as well as those in the wild. According to the statement on the zoo's blog, future plans include vaccinations for other elephants and eventually adapting a similar approach for African elephants as well.

Notably, the development of this vaccine is a result of long-term efforts that span over 15 years between the zoo and BCM. The project also highlights the essential roles of individuals such as Jessica Watts, a graduate student in Dr. Ling’s laboratory, and Dr. Jeroen Pollet at Texas Children’s Hospital and the National School of Tropical Medicine at BCM. The work was significantly realized through the support of the Houston Zoo, a private foundation, and organizations that have recently boosted the project, like the International Elephant Foundation and Colossal Biosciences. Through this endeavor, elephant lives across North America, Europe, and native habitats could be saved, ensuring their preservation into the future.