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WHO to Accelerate R&D for Ebola, Other Diseases

FILES - People walking past a billboard reading "Stop Ebola" in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Nov. 7, 2014.
FILES - People walking past a billboard reading "Stop Ebola" in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Nov. 7, 2014.

Experts at a high-level World Health Organization meeting have agreed on a roadmap for accelerating research and development into new medical products to fight Ebola and other epidemic-prone diseases.

More than 11,000 people in West Africa lost their lives to Ebola because there were no medical preparations to combat this deadly disease. Scientists, industry representatives and public health officials attending this two-day WHO meeting agree the situation cannot be allowed to continue.

WHO Assistant Director-General Marie-Paule Kieny says Ebola is not unique in this regard. She says the world was totally unprepared to deal with epidemics of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and the H1N1 bird flu.

To remedy this, she says participants are working on a new framework to speed up research and development for diseases that could become epidemics and other health threats.

This way, she says, the next time the world is faced with an epidemic, it can respond more quickly and effectively.

“If something like Ebola ever happens again to this level, the world needs to be ready with a blueprint, an R& D preparedness plan, with clear rules, platform for information sharing, established processes to expedite development and clinical trials, to activate coordinated action and limit the damage," said Kieny.

Kieny says for certain diseases, the development of medical products should be started before a potential outbreak. She says the speed with which new tools for Ebola were developed and clinical trials for vaccines and drugs were set up shows the world can react more quickly than in the past to combat spreading diseases.

“We now have commercial diagnostics to detect Ebola and at least two possibly effective vaccines. I say possibly because for the time being we have no proof that they are efficacious indeed," said Kieny. "These results should normally have taken five to 10 years, if you start the time from where we were in August in 2014. And, all this was done in less than 10 months. So, what is emerging is an interesting model for R & D that reaches far beyond this particular epidemic and disease. It is not only about Ebola.”

But, Kieny notes the window of opportunity for testing is closing. As Ebola wanes, she notes there may not be enough cases to continue testing the vaccines and several candidate drugs.

On Saturday, the WHO declared Liberia Ebola-free and latest reports show just seven confirmed cases of Ebola in Guinea and two in Sierra Leone. Kieny considers this move toward zero cases in Ebola-ravaged West Africa extremely good news.

She says testing can go on in other ways. For example, she says the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, has a pathway called Animal Rule which uses two animal models for judging the safely and efficacy of Ebola medications in humans.