Much ado about Ebola

There is no doubt that Ebola is a monumental problem, and it's a notable part of our September issue coverage. But there's also been a lot of excessive fear and hype as well, which has perhaps made the disease look like something out of an apocalyptic novel or film. On the bright side, the increased attention seems to have mobilized many pharmas, biotechs, government agencies and others to increase the pace of Ebola diagnostics and therapies, which could be welcome relief to the people most at risk of the disease.

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It’s a good thing that Ebola isn’t nearly as easily contracted as so many people fear it is, or we’d all be at risk of global extinction simply from media exposure to the too-often-deadly virus. Now, I’m not saying Ebola isn’t a serious threat; it is. Contracting it is fatal for a large percentage of its victims, and it is certainly representing a serious disease outbreak threat in West Africa right now.
I don’t downplay the significance of the disease and a need for both therapeutics and diagnostics.
However, there has been a lot of hype as well. As I look at media coverage and see people posting their thoughts and fears online, I am struck by how many people think that we are one infected person away from a global epidemic. When two stricken healthcare professionals were transported to the United States for treatment, so many online were angry and fearful at bringing any Ebola-infected person into the country. I don’t know if they’ve simply seen too many episodes of “The Walking Dead” or what, but there were and continue to be many misconceptions about contraction of the disease and, in our country, how difficult it would be (barring some sort of huge and unlikely mutational leap on the part of the Ebola virus) for the disease to be passed along to people in large numbers. It is those who care for infected people directly and those who handle the bodies of people slain by the disease that are ones who should be truly worried.
And yet, if an email I got from is to be believed, people now fear Ebola more than heart disease (the number-one killer of people), lung cancer and malaria.
Still, overhyped or not, I still believe it’s a threat that needs to be addressed, given how many people it could kill in Africa right now, where care conditions and burial practices put so many people at risk. And if the increased attention kicks pharmas, biotechs, government agencies and others to work a little harder at making diagnostics and therapeutics and getting them to the people who need them faster, I’m all for that (I just wish there were as much energy expended in the realm of developing new broad-spectrum antibiotics and such).
In fact, there has been a lot of activity among the players I just mentioned. In this issue alone, we have two Ebola-related news articles, and I think we’ve only previously published a total of a dozen articles in the magazine and online since 2005 that concerned the Ebola virus. And between the time I assigned all the articles for the September issue and the time I wrote this editorial, I got a veritable flood of emails about Ebola-related work.
Let me share just a sampling.
Initial human testing of an investigational vaccine to prevent Ebola virus disease was set to begin in early September by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The early-stage trial will begin initial human testing of a vaccine co-developed by NIAID and GlaxoSmithKline.
Also, Chimerix Inc., a biopharmaceutical company developing novel, oral antivirals in areas of high unmet medical need, reported on in-vitro activity of its investigational antiviral, brincidofovir, against the Ebola virus following testing at the Viral Special Pathogens Branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Additional assessments of the agent in animal model studies are being conducted through the CDC and NIH.
In addition, Mapp Biopharmaceutical landed a contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services worth as much as $42.3 million to expedite development of its investigational Ebola treatment ZMapp. An initial payment of $24.9 million will go, at least in part, toward production of ZMapp for early-stage clinical trials.
Furthermore, Bavarian Nordic A/S announced recently that it will accelerate its collaboration with the NIAID on the development of its Ebola vaccine programs. The company and its partners plan to initiate the first trial of a promising combination vaccine regimen in humans in 2015.
And finally, BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc. sent word to me that it will participate in a consultation on potential Ebola therapies and vaccines hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva in early September. According to the WHO, “The consultation has been convened to gather expertise about the most promising experimental therapies and vaccines and their role in containing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.”
I say “finally,” but really, that’s not even half of the Ebola news releases I received. May the attention lead to containment and cures, and may we still have such motivation on other, bigger issues on which we continue to lag.

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