Trying to find a cure for Ebola

By mid-October of 2014, there had been nearly 10,000 reported cases of Ebola and nearly 5,000 people had died, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – although many epidemiologists believed the real death toll was two or three times higher. The epidemic was constantly shifting shape: as the numbers dropped in one area, the rate of infection flared up somewhere else. When a person got infected, fever, muscle pain and headaches progressed quickly to vomiting, diarrhoea and then internal and external bleeding. Within six to 16 days up to 70% of those with the Ebola virus were dead.

Oxford scientists  had 15 days to visit eight potential sites, spread across three countries paralysed by economic collapse, and where travel was limited by curfews and quarantine laws. They were looking for a treatment centre that fitted the exacting criteria for their trial. Horby, one of the scientists described finding the right site as “like aligning the stars”. They needed well-designed buildings, internet connectivity, reliable power and plug sockets. They needed to be sure the drugs could be kept securely on site. “You’ve got a long list [of possible sites], but when you look at who fits all the criteria, you rapidly cross them off,” said Horby.

The scientists had to move fast, but finding the right trial site was only part of the critical enterprise they were engaged in. In normal circumstances, getting a new drug from the lab to the pharmacy is an extremely slow process. Drugs need to be tested systematically on animals and humans before initial large-scale trials can begin.

There are now some 200 drugs on the WHO list of potential treatments. The Oxford team chose TKM-Ebola, made by Tekmira, a Canadian company. Their drug gave 100% protection from Ebola virus in monkeys and had even been through safety trials in healthy human volunteers. On 15 February, Dunning flew out to Sierra Leone to run the TKM trial. The race is on again. The Oxford team of scientists is still working tirelessly to try to find a safe and reliable cure for Ebola.