US fears spur Ebola breakthrough

By Simon Allison 7 December 2011

It’s hard to make sense of all the medical jargon, but the conclusion is clear and potentially life-saving. Researchers in America have released a report saying they might just have found a cure for one of the world’s most dangerous diseases, the dreaded Ebola virus. Testing is still in its initial phases, but results are promising – and we have the US government to thank. By SIMON ALLISON.

The Ebola virus might not kill the most people. Outbreaks, while vicious, affect hundreds rather than millions, and it tends to die out (temporarily, at least) relatively quickly. But when it does strike, it strikes hard, killing up to 90% of the people it infects and afflicting them with the most horrifying symptoms, including hemorrhagic fever which causes bleeding from the eyes, nose, gums and intestines. It’s also highly contagious, making it extremely difficult to control.

It was these qualities that led the US government to take an active interest in finding some kind of vaccine for the disease. It wasn’t particularly worried about the African villagers who bear the brunt of outbreaks, every few years. Rather, in the wake of 9/11, they were terrified by the prospect of Ebola being used in some kind of terrorist attack. It would be a perfect fit: quick, lethal and terrifying in the extreme.

The intense research sparked by this fear looks like it might have paid off after scientists funded by the US government announced an important breakthrough. A new vaccine tested on mice yielded good results, with 80% of the infected mice surviving the infection. Although this finding comes with caveats – the strain of Ebola in mice differs from that in humans, and there are plenty more tests still to be performed – it’s still good news. And, at the same time, the scientists involved have pioneered a new way to produce the vaccine by growing it in modified tobacco plants. This will bring down the cost of the final drug considerably. DM

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