Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD
In March, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) reported an outbreak of a “more virulent” Ebola virus infection in Guinea and Sierra Leone .Now, the disease has been spread to Liberia and Nigeria, among other West Africa countries. The final count is more than 1600 confirmed cases of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, with almost 900 deaths caused for this syndrome. Some of these cases included health-care workers. Indeed, two medical doctors were taken back to US to be treated with a new cocktail in the Emory University Hospital facilities in Atlanta, GA. Some Americans began to panic, for example Jon Stewart said in his show that “They are importing Ebola”.
Last week, two patients with Ebola like symptoms were all over the news. One of these cases happened in the New York City Mount Sinai Hospital, and the patient was isolated and tested right away. The hospital sent an email to all the employees updating them about the situation, and the press took over it. The bright side of the situation, in addition to the negative test result for Ebola virus, was the fast reply. The dark side was the paranoia and the lack of information and knowledge about this virus from the Manhattan community. It was alarming to read that some neighbors did not want to go to the emergency room in the hospital for fear to get infected. Well, you can’t get infected just for seating next to a sick person, or talk, or shake your hands: it is not an airborne transmitted virus.
The other problem is that the symptoms are pretty similar to other more “common” diseases: Fever, rash, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and bleeding, both internally and externally. The difference is that the fatality rate is more than 60%. The transmission of the virus mostly occurs by contact with infected blood, secretions or organs of either bats, nonhuman primates or humans. This is why you should not eat bats or monkeys if you visit any of the affected areas, or hang around any cemeteries. Not surprisingly, Ebola was named as the most frightening disease in the world. It was documented for the first time in 1976 in the Republic of Congo; one of the sources came from the Ebola River.
In 2012 an outbreak in Uganda found us in a similar medical emptiness: the research of two of the vaccines that were “apparently” going great had been canceled by the department of defense, due to funding constraints. Therefore, so far we do not have any vaccine or effective treatment available.
In 2009, Dr. Feldmann, by then working in Canada (now in Montana, US), developed a vaccine that was used years after in Germany when a researcher accidentally pricked her finger with a syringe containing Ebola The Feldmann’s vaccine consists in a recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus expressing the Ebola glycoprotein which protects macaques from Ebola virus infections; although this method is not licensed for human use and the government founding has been random. A similar vaccine has been produce by Profectus BioSciences in Tarrytown, New York, but they are also short in the monetary founding that will push the research to the human trials.
The famous ZMapp serum, the treatment that the 2 Americans are receiving, is a cocktail of humanized, three-monoclonal- antibodies. This “cure” was the result of the collaboration of 25 laboratories among seven countries. The project, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has a total budget of $28 millions. The scientific leader is the Dr. Erica Ollmann-Shapire, whom claimed that she would take the cocktail without doubts if she would be infected. Also the company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, based in California, is the principal producer of these antibodies. The initial trials in macaques were very successful, but the approval for the use in human trial is pending until 2015.
A lot of laboratories along the world are working towards the better understanding of the Ebola virus and the possible vaccines and cures. Most of these researches are founded by the US Department of Defense. But, why does the US Department of Defense care about an African virus? The answer is pretty obvious: it can be used as a bio hazard weapon. On the other hand, no leading pharmaceutical is going to invest in a “very expensive and time consuming” vaccine development to be used in countries that can’t afford even a basic level of health care. Some compounds are showing a promising antiviral effect in vitro and/or an inhibition of a variety of viral proteins activities. Sadly, all of them are in an early stage of drug development. On the other hand,the actual need for a therapy and a vaccine to stop this outbreak is speeding the drug development process.
Before freaking out, the best prevention method against this scaring virus is knowledge, so check out the updates in the CDC website.