Hope for Ebola as medical experts work to find vaccine

Canada's Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp says it has begun manufacturing an Ebola drug.

FILE: An Ebola sign placed in front of a home in the West Point slum area of Monrovia, Liberia. Picture: EPA.

JOHANNESBURG - There are hopes for a medical breakthrough in the fight against the Ebola virus.

In Nigeria, a serum being developed from the blood of Ebola victims who have recovered from the haemorragic fever could be available within a few weeks.

The World Health Organisation says two potential vaccines are being safety tested and could be available by January.

In a development on the medical front, the Canadian company Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp said it has begun limited manufacturing of an Ebola drug targeting the strain of the virus causing the epidemic.

Tekmira said the new drug would be available by December but did not specify how many doses it was making or whether it was intended as treatment for infected patients or a vaccine. It was also not made clear when the drug might undergo human clinical trials to test its efficacy and safety.

Initial clinical trials of Ebola vaccines from GlaxoSmithKline and NewLink Genetics are under way, according to the WHO.

The experimental treatment ZMapp, jointly developed by the Scripps Research Institute and Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., both of San Diego, was provided to two American medical workers who recovered after contracting Ebola in Liberia, and to at least one Spanish priest who died.

There are no US government-approved vaccines, medications or dietary supplements to prevent or treat Ebola, which is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids and tissue but is not airborne.


Cuban doctors and nurses departing for West Africa to combat Ebola consider themselves lucky. Among the 15,000 who volunteered, they are among only 256 who have been chosen for the job.

"There have been fights breaking out, heated arguments, with some doctors asking, 'How come my colleague gets to go and I can't?'" doctor Adrian Benitez, 46, said on Tuesday just hours before he was due to board a plane for Liberia.

Despite a global alarm over the worst Ebola outbreak on record, Cuban doctors are eager to travel to West Africa and start healing the sick.

Nicknamed as the "army of white robes" and citing a long history of Cuban medical missions in Africa and elsewhere, they speak of a sense of duty and are willing to assume the risks.

"We know that we are fighting against something that we don't totally understand. We know what can happen. We know we're going to a hostile environment," said Leonardo Fernandez, 63. "But it is our duty. That's how we've been educated."

The Ebola virus has killed more than 4,500 people since March, mostly in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The numbers include more than 200 healthcare workers.

Some Cuban 165 doctors and nurses have already arrived in Sierra Leone and another 91 were flying on Tuesday for six-month missions, with 53 destined for Liberia and 38 for Guinea.


The United States ratcheted up its safeguards against the disease on Tuesday, requiring travelers from three countries at the center of an epidemic in West Africa to fly into one of five major airports conducting enhanced screening for the virus.

Restrictions on passengers whose trips originated in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea were announced by the US Department of Homeland Security and due to go into effect on Wednesday. The precautions stop well short of the travel ban sought by some US lawmakers to prevent more Ebola cases in the United States.

Affected travelers will have their temperatures checked for signs of a fever that may indicate Ebola infection, among other protocols, at New York's John F Kennedy, New Jersey's Newark, Washington Dulles, Atlanta, and Chicago's O'Hare international airports, officials said.

"We are working closely with the airlines to implement these restrictions with minimal travel disruption," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. "If not already handled by the airlines, the few impacted travelers should contact the airlines for rebooking, as needed."

Johnson said those airports account for about 94 percent of travelers flying to the United States from the three countries, noting that there are no direct, nonstop commercial flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea to the United States.

"We currently have in place measures to identify and screen anyone at all land, sea and air ports of entry into the United States who we have reason to believe has been present in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea in the preceding 21 days," Johnson said.

Washington-based trade group Airlines for America, or A4A, noted that under 150 people per day travel to the United States from those three countries and about 6 percent of them, some nine people daily, have been arriving at airports other than the five airports with enhanced Ebola screening.

The group's member airlines are "cooperating fully" with the US Customs and Border Protection agency to reroute that 6 percent of travelers to the five designated airports, A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina said.

The subject of travel measures may come up in White House discussions on Wednesday when President Barack Obama and his senior advisers meet for the first time with his newly appointed Ebola "czar," Ron Klain.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Obama is "not philosophically opposed to a travel ban" on West Africa, and remains "open to it" if the scientists and public health experts advising him say it would help protect Americans. Earnest said those advising the president currently oppose such a ban.