Raccoons on an uninhabited island off the coast of Virginia will be vaccinated against rabies in the first U.S. test of a genetically engineered vaccine for wildlife, officials announced Monday.
Bait doused with the vaccine will be scattered on Parramore Island, 4 1/2 miles offshore starting Monday, the Virginia Department of Health announced.
The vaccine was developed to combat the growing problem of rabid raccoons and other wild animals, which have reached epidemic levels in the Mid-Atlantic states in recent years, according to Warren Cheston of the Wistar Institute of Philadelphia, which began work on the vaccine in 1982.
The field test was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state of Virginia and the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that owns the seven-mile-long barrier island.
During the field test, scientists will scatter bait laden with the vaccine over the island. Wistar researchers will then spend the next year trapping the animals and testing their blood to see if they have developed antibodies to the rabies virus.
The island will be off-limits to the public and will be monitored by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The vaccine could be commercially available in five years if the trial goes well, and further tests are also successful, according to David Espeseth of the USDA.
Scientists developed the vaccine by inserting a gene from the rabies virus into the live vaccinia virus, the same agent used to develop vaccines against smallpox and other diseases. As a result the virus carries a protein identical to one on the rabies virus and the vaccinated animal's immune system develops antibodies that attack the protein, disabling the virus. The next time the immunized animal encounters such a protein, it would be on the surface of a rabies virus. The vaccine cannot spread the disease because it does not use the parts of the virus that cause rabies. The same strategy is being used to develop vaccines against human diseases.