Ebola scare and opportunities

Cheming Yang

Since its emergence in 1976, Ebola has been largely viewed as a remote threat. It was mostly treated as a sporadic problem of the developing world in the past. There are very few facilities in the world equipped to safely study the virulent pathogen. With the paltry input on its researches and prevention, an outbreak of unprecedented scale occurred in West Africa this year and the chances of the disease spreading out of Africa are increasing. The death toll in Africa alone is estimated to hit 5,000 by the end of this year. This epidemic brings back the awful memory of the SARS epidemic and its impact on economy in 2003.
Many months into the worst Ebola outbreak in history, governments and aid organizations have finally begun mobilizing physicians, nurses, epidemiologists, and military personnel on a major scale. Their focus is on curtailing the explosive transmission in West Africa, stopping the virus’s spread outside the continent, and clinically supporting the ill. But there are still serious gaps in what we know about the biology of Ebola. We don’t know enough about the biology of Ebola to bring the outbreak under full control, or to neutralize the virus once the outbreak is contained.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a statement to officially welcome the approval by Swissmedic, the Swiss regulatory authority for therapeutic products, for a trial with an experimental Ebola vaccine at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). WHO said that this marks the latest step towards bringing safe and effective Ebola vaccines for testing and implementation as quickly as possible. Approval means that the vaccine can be used on approximately 120 individuals in Lausanne. The trial, which is receiving support from WHO, is the latest in a series of trials that are ongoing in Mali, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The vaccine is based on a genetically modified chimpanzee adenovirus. Developed by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, the vaccine consists of a virus that is rendered harmless and used as genetic carrier for one Ebola protein. The application, submitted at the end of September 2014, was handled as a priority, given the dimensions of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. There are currently two trials in Switzerland coordinated by WHO. A second vaccine, rVSV-ZEBOV, is to be tested at the Geneva University Hospitals, concurrent to the Lausanne trial. These are dosing and safety trials being held in advance of Phase II and III trials currently scheduled for late 2014-early 2015. Trials in Lausanne will have first results in December 2014.
The development of new drugs and new vaccines is a painstaking marathon compared to the development of other consumer products. Due to the safety concerns, before becoming available in the market, new drugs and vaccines need to go through three phases of trials as regulated by health authorities. The Ebola scare although overshadows the world’s economical development, it also provides a window of opportunities for the biotechnology sector. The fear for H1N1 epidemic a few years back is a good example. Quite a number of companies had benefited from the fast tract approval of their vaccines against H1N1. Judging from past experiences and in light of current concerted effort of public and private sectors, the Ebola crisis also provides an opportunity for the world to renovate the new drug and vaccine R&D infra-structure to be more industry friendly and to be more conducive to encouraging breakthroughs in biotechnology of course without sacrificing human safety.

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