But researchers here and around the world have struggled to advance the projects further because the relatively few number of cases offers little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies. The current outbreak -- the worst in history, having killed about 60 percent of the 1,300 infected since March -- could help change that, researchers said. It already prompted the NIH to announce the launch of clinical trials of a vaccine candidate on humans in September.
Meanwhile, poor communication and understanding of the virus is allowing it to spread faster than efforts to contain it, according to the
"I believe we're only seeing a small portion of the actual cases out there," Schoepp said of the outbreak. "It's putting a tremendous stress on the medical system, and there aren't even enough medical staff to take samples."
Two Ebola patients are about to enter
Schoepp is in the midst of a monthlong deployment to
"Everyone is scared here," said Schoepp, chief of the
His daily infection control precautions include three pairs of gloves, hoods and face shields tucked in to a Tyvek bodysuit. At stores, customers are asked to wash their hands in chlorine before shopping, he said.
Fears of the disease don't stem from a lack of knowledge about its molecular biology or epidemiology, researchers said. Since its discovery in 1976 near the
Symptoms include sudden high fever, headache and fatigue, and, eventually, massive internal and external bleeding. Some of the five known strains of the virus can kill as many as 90 percent of those infected, typically by shock, renal failure or blood loss.
It is not known how outbreaks begin, but it is thought that the virus is carried by fruit bats and transmitted from animals to humans.
Scientists also have learned how to counteract the virus, if only in primates. At least four vaccines that have been tested in the U.S. use benign pieces of Ebola to trick the body into mounting a response to the virus, thus building immunity. The proteins that surround the Ebola virus' genetic information are instead bound to other viruses, which are either naturally harmless to humans or are weakened, or to other proteins so the body recognizes them as Ebola.
"They're each finding different mechanisms to get there, and they're all going to get there; however, I don't know how soon it will be," said
The potential vaccine Profectus is developing with the
But if it's shown to be safe, its strength could make it a significant candidate for widespread adoption, said
"You don't have months and months and months for a vaccine to work." Geisbert said. "You need a fast-acting vaccine."
An NIH official said Thursday that a vaccine candidate it is developing in
While each of the four candidates has proved effective at building Ebola immunity in monkeys, research has stalled there.
Given that fewer than 3,000 people are known to have been infected with Ebola since its discovery nearly four decades ago, a small number relative to the more than 200 million who come down with malaria each year, for example, there has been little financial upside for pharmaceutical companies, said
Funding for Ebola research has largely come from NIH and from the
The disease's rarity has prevented Profectus from locking down
"The current outbreak has made it very clear that you'd need to think beyond the biodefense applications to emerging infectious disease status," Eldridge said. "There's been an understanding that this needed to be worked on, but there was no dramatic sense of urgency, and that has now changed."
Alarm over the outbreak is not expected to wane any time soon. The
"The scale of the Ebola outbreak, and the persistent threat it poses, requires WHO and
U.S. health officials are also on alert. Dr.
"We just want people to be thinking about that and on the lookout," Blythe said.
Researchers said as long as the outbreak continues and fears of it spreading to other parts of the globe remain, their efforts could continue to see increased attention. But once it wanes, one expert said, progress could stall again without the threat or reality of more widespread outbreaks.
"Vaccine development is driven by business," said Dr.
Reuters contributed to this article.
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