Why isn't there a treatment or vaccine for Ebola?

August 1, 2014 by Maria Cheng
In this Saturday, Sept. 29, 2007, file photo, A 43 year old Congolese patient, center, who has been confirmed to have Ebola hemorrhagic fever, following laboratory tests, is comforted by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) nurse Isabel Grovas, left, and Doctor Hilde Declerck, right, in Kampungu, Kasai Occidental province, Congo. In the four decades since the Ebola virus was first identified in Africa, treatment hasn't changed much. There are no licensed drugs or vaccines for the deadly disease. A number are being developed, but none have been rigorously tested in humans. One experimental treatment, though, was tried this week in an American aid worker sick with Ebola, according to the U.S-based group that she works for in Liberia. Without a specific treatment, doctors and nurses focus on easing the disease's symptoms _ fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea _ and on keeping patients hydrated and comfortable. (AP Photo/WHO, Christopher Black, File)

In the four decades since the Ebola virus was first identified in Africa, treatment hasn't changed much. There are no licensed drugs or vaccines for the deadly disease.

Some are being developed, but none have been rigorously tested in humans. One , though, was tried this week in an American aid worker sick with Ebola, according to the U.S-based group that she works for in Liberia.

Without a specific treatment, doctors and nurses focus on easing the disease's symptoms—fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea—and on keeping patients hydrated and comfortable.

The outbreak in three West African countries—Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone—has sickened more than 1,300 people and more than 700 have died since March.

WHY ISN'T THERE A TREATMENT BY NOW?

For one thing, the Ebola virus is hard to work with. The virus doesn't grow well in petri dishes and experiments can only be done in the relatively few labs with the highest security measures.

And while Ebola is lethal, it's rare. Outbreaks are unpredictable, giving doctors few chances to test new treatments. While the current epidemic is the largest recorded, the number of people sickened by Ebola is small compared to the number killed by other diseases like malaria or dengue. Much of the funding for Ebola research is from governments that worry about the virus being used in a bioterror attack.

"It's not economically viable for any company to do this kind of research because they have stockholders to think about," said Ben Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading in Britain.

WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE?

There are about a half dozen Ebola drugs and vaccines in development, several of which have received funding from the U.S. One drug developed by the U.S. Army has shown promising results when tested in monkeys.

"We think this may work because of the animal models but until you do the studies in humans, you just don't know," said Fred Hayden, an specialist at the University of Virginia, who was not involved in the research.

While animal studies for candidates have been encouraging, it's unclear what dose humans would need.

A Canadian company, Tekmira, has a $140 million contract with the U.S. government to develop a Ebola vaccine. An early test of the shot in healthy humans was stopped recently after the Food and Drug Administration asked for more safety information.

SHOULD EXPERIMENTAL DRUGS BE USED NOW?

Scientists are split on whether or not it is a good idea to try experimental drugs and vaccines before they are approved but the prospect is being informally discussed.

"Given the prolonged and unprecedented nature of the epidemic, we need to carefully consider this," said Dr. Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of Ebola in 1976 and director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The World Health Organization has no plans to facilitate any clinical trials during this outbreak, spokesman Gregory Hartl said.

Other experts say it's unethical to use treatments or vaccines that haven't been properly tested, and warn the results could be disastrous.

"None of these drugs or vaccines are ready to be used in humans from a legal point of view," said Dr. Heinz Feldmann, chief of virology at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

It would be impossible to vaccinate or treat everyone in the region but if any tests do proceed, they would probably be focused on those at highest risk: health care workers.

The American woman who got the experimental drug in Liberia worked at a hospital where Ebola patients were treated. It's not known what kind of treatment she received.

If are treated, "We will have to explain why some people are getting the vaccine and others are not," Feldmann said, adding there are still vast areas of West African communities suspicious of Western aid workers and their treatments. "At the moment, it doesn't even look like the local population wants it."

Explore further: Top Sierra Leone doctor dies of Ebola

More information: Ebola information: www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/en/

Related Stories

Top Sierra Leone doctor dies of Ebola

July 29, 2014
(AP)—Authorities say the top doctor treating Ebola in Sierra Leone has died from the disease.

Ebola outbreak speeds up efforts to find a vaccine

August 1, 2014
There is no vaccine on the world market to protect against the deadly Ebola virus, but experts say the fast-growing outbreak in West Africa is speeding efforts to test one.

5 things to know about Ebola outbreak in W. Africa

July 28, 2014
(AP)—There has been panic and fear about the deadly Ebola disease spreading ever since Nigerian health officials reported Friday that a Liberian man sick with the disease had traveled to Togo and then Nigeria before dying. ...

'Experimental serum' is offered to US Ebola patients

July 31, 2014
A US doctor stricken with Ebola in Liberia was offered an experimental serum but insisted that his colleague receive it instead, a Christian aid agency said Thursday.

Ebola discoverer says would sit next to victim on train

July 31, 2014
The scientist who helped discover the Ebola virus said the outbreak in west Africa was unlikely to trigger a major epidemic outside the region, adding he would happily sit next to an infected person on a train.

Airlines agency considering passenger screening for Ebola

July 31, 2014
The International Civil Aviation Organization said Thursday it is considering passenger screenings for Ebola, now that the deadly virus for the first time has crossed international borders aboard an aircraft.

Recommended for you

Google searches can be used to track dengue in underdeveloped countries

July 20, 2017
An analytical tool that combines Google search data with government-provided clinical data can quickly and accurately track dengue fever in less-developed countries, according to new research published in PLOS Computational ...

MRSA emerged years before methicillin was even discovered

July 19, 2017
Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) emerged long before the introduction of the antibiotic methicillin into clinical practice, according to a study published in the open access journal Genome Biology. It was ...

New test distinguishes Zika from similar viral infections

July 18, 2017
A new test is the best-to-date in differentiating Zika virus infections from infections caused by similar viruses. The antibody-based assay, developed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Humabs BioMed, a private biotechnology ...

'Superbugs' study reveals complex picture of E. coli bloodstream infections

July 18, 2017
The first large-scale genetic study of Escherichia coli (E. coli) cultured from patients with bloodstream infections in England showed that drug resistant 'superbugs' are not always out-competing other strains. Research by ...

Ebola virus can persist in monkeys that survived disease, even after symptoms disappear

July 17, 2017
Ebola virus infection can be detected in rhesus monkeys that survive the disease and no longer show symptoms, according to research published by Army scientists in today's online edition of the journal Nature Microbiology. ...

Mountain gorillas have herpes virus similar to that found in humans

July 13, 2017
Scientists from the University of California, Davis, have detected a herpes virus in wild mountain gorillas that is very similar to the Epstein-Barr virus in humans, according to a study published today in the journal Scientific ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Valentiinro
5 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2014
I read an article recently which pretty much answers all these questions more succinctly.

http://www.theoni...a,36580/
Valentiinro
5 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2014
I read an article recently which pretty much answers all these questions more succinctly.

http://www.theoni...a,36580/
Sinister1812
3 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2014
"It's not economically viable for any company to do this kind of research because they have stockholders to think about,"


Nevermind the people suffering with no hope. Especially if there's no money to be made... /sigh

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.