COVID-19 Vaccines Give ‘Huge Boost’ to Researchers Trying to Save Tassy Devils

Researchers trying to protect Tasmanian devils from a deadly disease wreaking havoc on wild animals have received a “huge boost” from an unlikely source – a COVID-19 vaccine.

About 80 percent of the wild Tasmanian devil population has been wiped out by transmissible devil facial tumor disease, which was first discovered in 1996.

A second type of devil facial tumor was found in 2014 in the Signet region of southern Tasmania, and there are concerns that it will spread to other areas of the state.

“Some unlucky devils have been found with both types of Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD),” said scientist Andy Flies from the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research.

Researchers have been working toward developing a more effective vaccine for DFTD for years, but major COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have accelerated that process.

“It allows us to see the best way to do it, how to get a permit to do it, and what safeguards are needed,” Dr. Flies said.

“Technology just got a big boost, and it’s helped us and hopefully will help the devil.”

While the previous vaccine showed some encouraging signs in some captive devils, it had limitations.

“Although the devils we vaccinated have an immune response against DFTD, it doesn’t protect them from developing tumors,” said scientist Ruth Pai, from the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research.

“This new vaccine we’re working on is a much more technologically advanced technology.”

Ruth smiles as Paye gestures and speaks.
Dr Pai said previous vaccines did not protect devils from developing tumors.,ABC News: Luke Bowden,

So how does it work?

Like the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots, this vaccine uses a weakened adenovirus to carry genetic “instructions” to make proteins that the immune system can learn to recognize.

This allows the immune system to learn how to fight the real thing.

But instead of injecting SARS-CoV-2 into the vaccine, scientists would choose proteins that are found in devil facial tumor cells but not in healthy devils.

“The immune system goes and checks in, and says, ‘This doesn’t look good, I’m going to kill that cell,'” Dr. Flies said.

A Tasmanian devil noses around the ground in a wildlife sanctuary.
Clinical trials of the vaccine on Tasmanian devils are expected to begin early next year.,ABC News: Luke Bowden,

The vaccine isn’t ready yet, but researchers are already looking at the best and most effective way to give it to a carnivore.

They are looking into an oral bait vaccine that has helped control the spread of rabies among foxes on four different continents, including the Americas.

“We’ll put the vaccine in the bait, we’ll put it out, and the devils will eat it and get vaccinated,” Dr. Flies said.

“We’ve started doing some preliminary testing to see what devils like to eat, hopefully other animals don’t like to eat, but it turns out that a lot of animals do like to eat things they shouldn’t.”

Clinical trials of the vaccine are expected to begin early next year, and Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary near Hobart will play a big role in the project.

“Bonorong has been generous in allowing us to build devil enclosures at the sanctuary for clinical trials of the vaccine,” Dr Pai said.

“Bonorong has experienced keepers who can look after the devils on a daily basis, and there is also a wildlife hospital in case we need it.”

not a simple enclosure

Callie pulls off the sleeve of Greg's shirt as he watches in entertainment.
Greg Irons, director of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, said devils are important for a healthy ecosystem.,ABC News: Luke Bowden,

Greg Irons, director of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, said building enclosures for wild Tasmanian devils was no easy task.

“They can climb a bit if you have the wrong walls, they can dig, and of course, there’s always the risk of other animals coming along with a tassy devil,” said Mr. Irons.

“It’s a pretty big job plan to see how well it’s going to work.”

Close up of Tasmanian devil with facial tumor
Tasmanian devils pass transmissible cancer cells to each other through bites.,Supplied by: Rodrigo Hamide ,

The new technology has generated great enthusiasm among wildlife caretakers, who have witnessed first-hand the effects of Devil Facial Tumor Disease.

“This [The disease] It feels like something has exploded from the inside out, it’s impossible not to feel sad,” said Mr. Irons.

About 50 Tasmanian devils are known to survive DFTD in the wild, but there is hope that a vaccine could boost the devil’s immune system to prevent disease, and could go a long way in conserving the species.

“Tassy Devils are vital to a healthy ecosystem,” said Mr. Irons.

Anyone who wants to support Devil Facial Tumor Disease vaccine research can donate to the Tasmanian Devil Appeal.

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