Paul Howard monitors the progress drug companies and government agencies are making:
If Uncle Sam doesn’t shell out the money to help develop and then buy an Ebola vaccine, no one else will. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the only other major investor in countermeasures for early-stage research, wrapped promising drugs such as ZMAPP in red tape, and seemed more interested in publishing academic papers than in actually helping companies develop products. Not surprisingly, the government is not an effective pharmaceutical company.
Still, nothing focuses the mind of government bureaucrats like a global health crisis unfolding in real time on cable-news networks. The government and private companies are now fast-tracking vaccine-development programs. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health is collaborating on developing Ebola vaccines with GlaxoSmithKline and NewLink Genetics. GSK hopes to get data from early-stage safety testing soon. If the vaccine passes, GSK intends to run a large trial with health-care workers in Ebola-affected countries by early 2015, if not sooner.
Dr. Jesse Goodman, the former chief scientist of the FDA, discusses the inherent challenges in developing a vaccine:
These are complex vaccines that involve a live virus and you always have to have very well-controlled production. Cost is one factor: I think it’s hard to predict, but these are not going to be inexpensive to produce. However, many public health experts have said that if we have a safe and effective vaccine, the cost mustn’t get in the way of it reaching communities.
With all experimental treatments, including vaccines, it’s really important not to make presumptions that they will work. It would really be a shame if we’re not able to learn what works and what doesn’t, for the next outbreak or if this one continues over an even longer period. A vaccine could be a really important tool, but if we don’t have solid studies that show that it works and is safe, I think it would be really problematic just to immunize huge numbers of people with a vaccine we don’t understand.
Meanwhile, Alexandra Sifferlin highlights a major research project at Emory University in pursuit of an effective treatment:
Scientists at Emory’s Children’s Center for Drug Discovery have extensively studied the development of drugs for HIV that stop the replication of the virus in the body. The center provided breakthroughs for HIV drug development and, more recently, the development of a drug for Hepatitis C. The viruses, though different, have similar replicating mechanisms (viral RNA replication), and now they think they can do it for Ebola.
The team, led by director Baek Kim, is fast-tracking a program to screen a library of over 10,000 chemical compounds that can treat viruses at the molecular level to see if one or more of them may show promise with Ebola. “We need to start screening many, many compounds,” says Kim, anywhere from 500 to 10,000 of them—each of which will be evaluated one by one. Emory chemist Raymond F. Schinazi, who discovered compounds used in multiple very successful anti-HIV drugs, will be working with five to 10 virologists, chemists and biochemists to get the job done.