Experts say additional research needed to defeat Ebola threats

As momentum and funding builds for an Ebola vaccine, experts in the field say that other avenues of research must be explored to help to defeat the extremely virulent disease.

While the risk of using the Ebola virus as a bioterrorism agent is theoretically possible, it is unable to survive outside the body because it is quickly killed by sunlight, which would restrict its ability to cause mass destruction, according to The Lancet. The U.S. Department of Defense, however, has provided the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases with $291 million to continue its work on a promising pair of drugs that target the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

“There have been quite a few promising vaccine candidates in post-exposure treatment strategies that have successfully protected non-human primates”, Thomas Geisbert of the University of Texas-Austin said, according to The Lancet.

Geisbert's team, working with USAMRIID, demonstrated 100 percent efficacy in one such vaccine candidate in a study last year. While a successful vaccine could be used in inoculating laboratory workers and healthcare professionals in endemic areas, transferring a prospective vaccine to the field is difficult.

Because the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus can result in a mortality rate of 90 percent, it is not really possible to arrange a placebo-control group. The FDA's 2002 Animal Rule does allow for drugs to be licensed with the backing of efficacy data from a well characterized animal model, but, due to the small size of the global market, funding would need to come from a donor government like the United States.

“I would think we're years away from a licensed product and bringing the kinds of vaccines or therapeutics into the regions that actually need them," Heinz Feldmann of the U.S. National Institutes of Health said, according to The Lancet. “(Prevention is) cheaper and likely to be more effective in the long-run.”

Feldmann also said that Ebola is an understudied subject and that certain aspects of the virus, including how it is transmitted and where it is hiding, makes it difficult to control the disease. In addition, the diagnosis and confirmation of the disease takes too long, which can cause problems if a suspected patient is held in a hospital without the ability to prevent human-to-human transmission.

Geisbert told The Lancet that treatments and vaccines in development could be deployed on compassionate grounds if a serious outbreak were to occur in central Africa, but in the short-medium term, control measures are the most effective way for the region to combat the virus.

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