TIME ebola

Experimental Ebola Vaccine Could Stop Virus in West Africa

It has been called "a game-changer"

LONDON (AP) — An experimental Ebola vaccine tested on thousands of people in Guinea seems to work and might help shut down the waning epidemic in West Africa, according to interim results from a study published Friday.

There is currently no licensed treatment or vaccine for Ebola, which has so far killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa since the world’s biggest outbreak began in the forest region of Guinea last year. Cases have dropped dramatically in recent months in the other two hard-hit countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“If proven effective, this is going to be a game-changer,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, which sponsored the study. “It will change the management of the current outbreak and future outbreaks.”

Scientists have struggled for years to develop Ebola treatments and vaccines but have faced numerous hurdles, including the sporadic nature of outbreaks and funding shortages. Many past attempts have failed, including a recently abandoned drug being tested in West Africa by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals.

For the study, researchers gave one dose of the new vaccine to more than 4,000 health care workers and other people within 10 days of their close contact with a sick Ebola patient. Another group of 3,500 people got the shot more than 10 days after their exposure to the infectious virus. In the group that received the vaccine immediately, there were no Ebola cases versus 16 cases in people who got delayed vaccination.

The vaccine, developed by the Canadian government, has since been licensed to Merck & Co. but has not yet been approved by regulators. The study results were published online Friday in the journal Lancet.

At the moment, officials think the vaccine would only be used once an outbreak starts, to protect those at high-risk; there are no plans to introduce mass vaccination campaigns like those for measles or polio or to create huge stockpiles of the shots.

Merck, based in Kenilworth, New Jersey, noted its vaccine is in what is normally the final round of human testing in Sierra Leone, and in mid-stage testing in Liberia.

Merck will manufacture the vaccine if it’s approved for use outside patient studies. In late-morning trading in the U.S., Merck shares were up 62 cents, or 1.1 percent, at $59.13.

Last December, Gavi, the vaccine alliance, said it would spend up to $300 million buying approved Ebola vaccines. The private-public partnership, which often buys immunizations for poor countries, said Friday that it “stands ready to support the implementation of a WHO-recommended Ebola vaccine.”

An expert group monitoring the study’s data and safety recommended the trial be stopped on July 26 so that everyone exposed to Ebola in Guinea could be immunized.

The vaccine uses an Ebola protein to prompt the body’s immune system to attack the virus.

“It looks to be about as safe as a flu vaccine,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading who was not part of the trial. Researchers are still assessing possible side effects; the most serious seemed to be fever and the stress experienced by patients who believe such symptoms were due to Ebola.

“This (vaccine) could be the key that we’ve been missing to end the outbreak,” Neuman said. “I don’t see any reason on humanitarian grounds why it should not be used immediately.” He said further tests would be necessary to see if the vaccine might also protect pregnant women, children and adolescents; those trials are already under way. It’s also uncertain how long protection might last.

WHO vaccines expert Marie-Paule Kieny said having an effective vaccine might avert future disasters but added it would still take months to get the shot approved by regulators.

“Using a tool like this vaccine, we would be able to stop the epidemic from going really wild and spreading further,” she told reporters, noting that stamping out future outbreaks still depends on early detection. WHO first identified Ebola in Guinea last March but did not declare the epidemic to be a global emergency until August, when the virus had killed nearly 1,000 people.

Other Ebola vaccines are being studied elsewhere but the declining caseload is complicating efforts to finish the trials.

___

AP Business Writer Linda A. Johnson in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.

TIME global health

Man Dies of Rare Lassa Fever in New Jersey

He had recently returned from traveling in Liberia

A man died of a rare African virus in New Jersey Monday after recently returning from Liberia, officials confirmed.

The man died of Lassa fever, a virus that causes hemorrhagic symptoms but is very different from Ebola, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Lassa fever is only fatal for 1% of those who are infected, while Ebola can be fatal for 70% of those infected without treatment. Lassa fever is also much harder to spread from person to person (it’s usually picked up from rodent droppings). About 100,000 to 300,000 Lassa fever cases are reported in West Africa every year, resulting in about 5,000 deaths.

The man with Lassa fever had arrived at JFK airport from Liberia on May 17, and went to a hospital the following day complaining of fever, sore throat and tiredness, officials said. At that time, he did not say he had been traveling in West Africa, and he was sent home the same day. On May 21 his symptoms worsened and he returned to the hospital, at which point he was transferred to a facility equipped to deal with viral hemorrhagic fevers. The patient was in “appropriate isolation” when he died Monday evening. The CDC is working to compile a list of people who may have encountered the patient while he was sick, and they are monitoring close contacts for 21 days to see if they develop the virus.

TIME Africa

Ebola Nations Request Debt Cancellation and Billions in Aid

People stand in line for food to be distributed to them as a health worker makes an announcement in Freetown, Sierra Leone on March 27, 2015.
Michael Duff—AP People stand in line for food to be distributed to them as a health worker makes an announcement in Freetown, Sierra Leone on March 27, 2015.

The countries in West Africa affected most by the Ebola outbreak are asking donors to cancel their debts and give them $5 billion to $6 billion in aid over two years.

“Our social services are ruined, our economies have halted, and we need a real Marshall Plan to take us out of the woods,” Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone, told Reuters Thursday.

Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are working on a regional reconstruction program, but they will need about $4 billion in debt relief on top of the billions they are requesting to rebuild their countries. The countries’ will unveil their program at a meeting on Friday with the heads of the World Bank, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

“If that (debt) is canceled and support is provided to our regional program, it will take us a long way forward in our transformation agenda,” Koroma said.

There were only 37 cases of Ebola reported in the region last week. But as leaders in West Africa and the World Health Organization have made clear, much more money and time is needed to fully eradicate the disease and help get the countries ruined by its spread.

TIME ebola

Slow International Response to Ebola Epidemic Cost Thousands of Lives: MSF

A Doctors Without Borders (MSF), health worker in protective clothing carries a child suspected of having Ebola in the MSF treatment center on October 5, 2014 in Paynesville, Liberia.
John Moore—Getty Images A Doctors Without Borders (MSF), health worker in protective clothing carries a child suspected of having Ebola in the MSF treatment center on October 5, 2014 in Paynesville, Liberia.

Group says medical staff faced an “indescribable horror" after they were forced to turn away ill patients

Paris-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has slammed the international community’s slow response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, saying it cost thousands of lives that could otherwise have been saved.

The leading international medical charity released a report Monday coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the outbreak’s start. It said warnings that the disease’s spread was out of control were dismissed as alarmist and that early calls for help were ignored by local governments and the World Health Organization (WHO), reports Reuters.

“For the Ebola outbreak to spiral this far out of control required many institutions to fail. And they did, with tragic and avoidable consequences,” said MSF’s general director Christopher Stokes in the report.

MSF dubbed the response a “global coalition for inaction.”

The Ebola epidemic has killed more than 10,200 people over the past year, most of those deaths were in the three worst affected West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

MSF first declared there was an Ebola outbreak at the end of March last year but this was rejected by the WHO. Three months later the body officially confirmed the outbreak.

The governments of Guinea and Sierra Leone also downplayed the epidemic, according to the report, and Sierra Leone withheld crucial data that prevented MSF from identifying affected villages.

“The Ministry of Health and the partners of Kenema hospital [outside the capital Freetown] refused to share data or lists of contacts with us, so we were working in the dark while cases kept coming in,” said MSF’s emergency coordinator in Sierra Leone, Anja Wolz.

By the end of August, medical centers were overwhelmed and health workers were forced to turn away infected patients.

“We had to make horrendous decisions about who we could let into the center,” said MSF coordinator Rosa Crestani. “We could only offer very basic palliative care and there were so many patients and so few staff that the staff had on average only one minute per patient. It was an indescribable horror.”

Numbers of Ebola cases are falling but MSF say the outbreak isn’t over yet. Liberia recorded its first new case in more than two weeks on Friday, Sierra Leone launched a national lock down over the weekend and cases in Guinea are rising again after a dip earlier in the year.

 

TIME ebola

U.N. Health Agency Resisted Calling Ebola an Emergency

The World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters building in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 .
Raphael Satter — AP The World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters building in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 .

Internal documents reveal top WHO officials stalled on calling Ebola an emergency

Top officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) dragged their feet in declaring the Ebola outbreak an emergency, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Internal documents from the U.N’s health agency revealed that officials at its Geneva headquarters were aware of how serious the Ebola outbreak was, but continued to put off calling it an emergency due to a number of concerns, including the effect on the economies of the affected countries, and the impact on the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

By the time the WHO did call the outbreak an emergency nearly 1,000 people had already died, the AP reports. The WHO is the only group that can declare a health emergency of international concern.

Declaring the epidemic an emergency might have spurred international attention and resources much earlier, possibly saving lives. In an emailed comment to the Associated Press, the WHO said: “People often confuse the declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern with our operational response. It is very different. WHO mounted a strong operational response a year ago when we were notified the outbreak was Ebola.”

Read the entire report at the Associated Press.

TIME Liberia

Schools in Liberia Reopen After a Six-Month Closure Due to Ebola

Liberia Ebola West Africa
Abbas Dulleh—AP Liberian school children wash their hands before entering their classrooms as part of the Ebola prevention measures at Cathedral High School as students arrive in the morning to attend class in Monrovia, Liberia, Feb. 16, 2015.

Cases of the deadly virus have been in decline over the past few weeks

After a six-month closure due to the Ebola epidemic, many schools in Liberia reopened their classroom doors on Monday.

Before lessons began, pupils lined up to wash their hands in chlorinated water while teachers took their temperatures as part of new safety measures, reports the BBC.

Though students were excited to get back to school, some were worried that the virus had not been completely eradicated.

Liberia was one of the worst affected countries by Ebola with at least 3,800 people killed. However, there has been a general decline of the deadly disease in recent weeks.

According to the World Health Organization, only three new confirmed cases were reported in Liberia in the week leading to Feb. 8.

The reopening of schools comes a day after leaders of the three worst affected West African states — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — vowed to achieve “zero Ebola infections within 60 days,” during a meeting in the latter on Sunday.

[BBC]

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Valentine’s Day Chocolate Will Be Pricey This Year

The price of cocoa harvested in West Africa has risen in the last year, causing chocolate producers to raise prices as well.

Watch the latest #KnowRightNow to find out how this will affect your wallet come Valentine’s Day.

TIME ebola

Ebola Bodies Are Infectious a Week After Death, Study Shows

The virus is also detectable in corpses for up to 10 weeks

Scientists have known for some time that the closer a person with Ebola is to death, the more infectious they are. A dead body with Ebola has been frequently referred to as a “viral bomb.” But what was unclear was how long bodies remained infectious. Now, researchers working for the National Institutes of Health in Hamilton, Montana released new findings on Thursday showing the Ebola virus may remain infectious in dead bodies for a week, and detectable for 1o weeks.

In the study, the researchers infected five macaque monkeys—a species they believe can serve as models for humans—with Ebola, then eventually euthanized them. They placed the dead monkeys in a temperature- and environment-controlled chamber to simulate the climate of West Africa. Over several weeks, the researchers sampled and swabbed the tissue of their nose, mouth, blood, lung, spleen, liver and muscle.

MORE TIME Person of the Year: Ebola Fighters

They concluded that infectious Ebola virus remained in the macaques’ organs for three days, and in their blood for seven days, after death. Viral RNA, which wasn’t infectious, was still detectable for 10 weeks.

The new findings underline the continued need for vigilance when burying the bodies of Ebola victims, as well as safer funeral practices. In the beginning of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the spread of the virus could often be traced to funerals. Prior to massive education efforts, people living in the three affected countries often participated in intimate practices with the dead. In Liberia, for example, washing and kissing the corpse was a common custom.

The research also gives scientists a better understanding of how long the virus can remain in dead animals, since an outbreak is is typically spurred from contact between an infected animal and a human. It also provides a warning for researchers in the field who may handle primate carcasses, the researchers note.

Read next: How Today’s Ebola Response Reflects the History of Colonialism in Africa

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME ebola

The First Ever Large-Scale Ebola Vaccine Trial Begins in Liberia

Health workers take temperature of boy who came in contact with woman who died of Ebola virus in Paynesville neighborhood of Monrovia
James Giahyue—Reuters Health workers take the temperature of a boy who came in contact with a woman who died of Ebola virus in the Paynesville neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia, Jan. 21, 2015

Thousands are due to receive the experimental drug

Liberia has commenced the first large-scale trials of an experimental Ebola vaccine.

Scientists aim to immunize around 30,000 volunteers and health care workers in the country starting Monday, the BBC reports. The trial will involve injecting each of them with a tiny amount of chimpanzee cold virus that carries safe genetic material of Ebola, tricking the human body into producing an immune response.

The medicine has been hidden in a secret location in the country since it arrived one week ago.

British pharmaceutical and healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline developed the vaccine alongside the U.S. National Institutes of Health; should the trial be successful, it would be the first preventative vaccine against the killer virus.

More than 8,500 people have died during the current Ebola outbreak, with 3,600 succumbing to the disease in Liberia alone. The number of new Ebola cases is in steady decline, however.

[BBC]

TIME ebola

WHO Chief Unveils Reforms After Ebola Response Criticized

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan addresses the media during a special meeting on Ebola at the WHO headquarters in Geneva
Pierre Albouy—Reuters World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan addresses the media during a special meeting on Ebola at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on Jan. 25, 2015.

"The Ebola outbreak revealed some inadequacies and shortcomings"

The head of the UN’s global health agency has laid out a set of reforms to better and more quickly fight disease outbreaks, in a frank acknowledgement that the organization struggled to confront the scale of the 2014 Ebola outbreak that killed more than 8,600 people.

“This was West Africa’s first experience with the virus, and it delivered some horrific shocks and surprises,” said World Health Organization (WHO) director General Margaret Chan in a speech on Sunday. “The world, including WHO, was too slow to see what was unfolding before us.”

The needed changes, she said, include country-specific emergency workforces trained with “military precision”; a strengthened team of epidemiologists for detecting disease and a network of other providers to allow responders to reach “surge capacity.”

“The Ebola outbreak revealed some inadequacies and shortcomings in this organization’s administrative, managerial, and technical infrastructures,” she said, calling for a “dedicated contingency fund to support rapid responses to outbreaks and emergencies.”

The remarks came as the WHO’s executive board prepared to meet in Geneva to discuss reform proposals that many in the international community consider to be overdue. The response to Ebola by the UN’s health agency was seen by many as slow and ineffectual.

Indeed, Sunday’s speech did not mark the first time Chan acknowledged her organization’s shortcomings. In October, she told TIME that “the scale of the response did not match the scale of the outbreak.”

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