There are few diseases that are spoken about which inspire such abject terror as does the Ebola hemorrhagic fever virus, a typically rare disease but one that flared up in March 2014 in West Africa, causing a panic across the world. As of January 17th of this year, there were a total of 11,316 deaths during the latest outbreak out of 28,638 suspected, probable and confirmed cases of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The vast majority of these deaths occurred in the heavily affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone; in Guinea, two-thirds of those contracting the Ebola virus died, at least through July 2015.
The medical world has shown some success in responding to this crisis, by far the deadliest Ebola outbreak ever by killing five times the total amount of people that the virus has ever killed in all previous outbreaks. In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Liberia to be Ebola-free, the last country awaiting that declaration (readers should take note, however, that a report released by WHO on January 20th confirms one new case in Sierra Leone). In the three weeks leading up to the end of January, WHO reported zero new cases in Guinea and Liberia.
When the next outbreak hits, the world may very well have its strongest tool to protect people from Ebola yet. In mid-January, reports were issued that researchers at both the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) were able to engineer antibodies which showed effectiveness in neutralizing the two deadliest strains of Ebola. It is effective against Zaire Ebola, the one causing the most recent outbreak, and Sudan Ebola, the next most-pathogenic strain of the disease after Zaire. There is a third known strain of Ebola which is called Bundibugyo.
This latest breakthrough relied on previous work performed by Einstein biochemistry professor Dr. Jonathan Lai in which his team engineered synthetic antibodies which bound to the surface glycoprotein of the Sudan strain, denying it access into host cells. The recent round of research has now resulted in a “bispecific” antibody which is effective against the two strains despite differences in their amino acid sequences.
This new advance is one that will be sorely needed to keep the world safer in terms of this highly infectious disease. In our coverage of the Ebola outbreak that published on this website back in October 2014, we discussed potential vaccines like ZMapp which have the capability of making Ebola a preventable disease and not just one to be managed. However, ZMapp is only effective against the Zaire strain. Because of the inability to predict which strain will cause the next outbreak, broad spectrum treatments targeting multiple strains will have the greatest impact.