Ebola research continues in U.S. as violence inhibits treatment efforts in Africa


CDC/ John Saindon

Recent violent attacks on Medicines San Frontieres (MSF) Ebola treatment centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo raise the prospect that the outbreak could grow even larger and more dangerous.

On Feb. 24, MSF’s Ebola treatment center in Katwa was attacked and unknown assailants set another on fire in Butemo on Feb. 26. Both centers were located in the hotspots of the ongoing outbreak, which began mid-2018. As of Feb. 26, there were 875 diagnosed cases of Ebola in the DRC (810 confirmed, 65 probable), including 551 deaths. MSF has since closed its treatment center and it isn’t clear what will happen in Butemo.

“The control of the epidemic won’t be achieved without the mobilization of the population, and it is clear that the actors of the response, MSF included, did not manage to gain this trust,” Emmanuel Massart, Katwa emergency coordinator told Devex, a global health development company.

The outbreak in the DRC is the second largest in history. The largest occurred between 2013 and 2015 in West Africa, during which about 28,000 Ebola cases were reported and 11,310 people died. In the U.S., two people died after contracting the virus in West Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For reporters looking for angles in preparation for a worsening of the Ebola outbreak, consider talking to researchers who are working on Ebola treatments and vaccines. In a far cry from the West Africa outbreak five years ago, there are a number of promising Ebola treatments in process.

The World Health Organization has initiated clinical trials in the DRC of several experimental therapies, including:

  • ZMapp, made by San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical, which had been credited with helping several Ebola patients during the West Africa outbreak;
  • mAb114, an antibody therapy developed by the National Institutes of Health from Ebola survivors;
  • GS-5734, an antiviral made by Foster City, Calif.-based Gilead Sciences;
  • REGN-EB3, an antibody treatment made by Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

Whether the violence in the DRC will halt these clinical trials is unknown.

Another experimental therapy that has made it through animal studies, but hasn’t yet moved to clinical trials, is called MBP134. The therapy may treat multiple strains of Ebola. It might be administered through an injection, potentially increasing treatment access to patients in remote areas.

A lead investigator of MBP134 is Thomas W. Geisbert, a University of Texas Medical Branch professor of microbiology and immunology. The medication, developed in conjunction with Mapp Pharmaceuticals, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and others, would treat three strains of Ebola – Sunda, Bundibugyo and Zaire, and was found to be effective in preclinical studies in ferrets and primates, according to a January 2019 study published in Cell Host & Microbe. The drug worked even multiple days after the animals had been infected with Ebola and were showing symptoms.

“The significance of the [study] is that we, and a lot of groups, have been looking at developing effective therapies … if someone is symptomatic. Because in most third-world countries, people don’t go [to get care] until they are really sick,” Geisbert said.

Geisbert has worked on Ebola for decades. He was an intern at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease in 1989 when he identified the Reston Ebola virus in monkeys. His story became part of the 1995 bestseller “The Hot Zone” about the origins of hemorrhagic fever. Ebola is a filovirus, a kind of pathogen that causes severe hemorrhagic (internal bleeding) disease in humans and nonhuman primates.

Geisbert was also part of the team of researchers that helped develop V920, an experimental Ebola vaccine made by Merck. It is being used in the DRC as part of a ring vaccination campaign to protect health care workers from contracting Ebola, and initial reports has demonstrated its success.

To reach researchers working these important therapies:

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