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0 USA focuses on Ebola vaccine but research gaps remain

The United States has backed efforts to develop a vaccine for Ebola, but specialists said scientists must look into a number of areas in pursuing defenses against the potential bioterrorism agent, The Lancet reported last week.

Weaponizing the Ebola virus appears to be a daunting task, the magazine said; the virus dies rapidly when exposed to sunlight, and the high speed with which it kills carriers minimizes opportunities for its spread.

Still, the Defense Department has provided $291 million for the development of two potential countermeasures for the Ebola and Marburg viruses at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md. Each of the highly lethal agents causes hemorrhagic fever in humans.
“There have been quite a few promising vaccine candidates in post-exposure treatment strategies that have successfully protected nonhuman primates,” said Thomas Geisbert, an expert with the University of Texas at Austin who led a research group that determined one such treatment was 100 percent effective in animal testing. A vaccine would be useful to laboratory personnel and to medical workers in areas where the virus exists in nature, according to the magazine.
“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”, said Heinz Feldmann, an official with the U.S. National Institutes of Health. High manufacturing expenses for such countermeasures could lead to significant procurement costs, according to the magazine.
Preventive efforts would be "cheaper and likely to be more effective in the long-run,” Feldmann said.
Further study is necessary. “One of the biggest challenges is to understand how the virus is being transmitted from the putative reservoir species to humans; or to other wildlife which then transmit it to humans,” the official said. "It's a totally understudied subject."
Also of concern is "that diagnosis, and confirmation of diagnosis, takes too long," according to Feldmann.
There have been situations in which diagnostic findings were not delivered for 10 days while Ebola spread through a population, said Esther Sterk of Doctors Without Borders. "We're lacking a biochemical and hematological test adapted to the field situations in which outbreaks usually occur," she said (Talha Khan Burki, The Lancet, July 30).

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