Cooling a Hot Virus
A vaccine for Ebola?
The Ebola virus ranks among the most terrifying of the deadly "emerging diseases." It strikes rap-idly and with gruesome symptoms, which the bestselling book The Hot Zone burned into the popular imagination. Outbreaks have swept through parts of Africa since 1976, killing up to 90 percent of its victims. An epidemic now ravaging Uganda has killed more than 150 people since late September. Perhaps most unnerving, the untreatable infection could easily spread throughout the world by way of infected air travelers or a bioterrorism attack.
But a recent study takes scientists one step closer to combating this menace. A team of researchers at the National Institutes of Health inoculated several healthy monkeys with a new DNA vaccine, which produces proteins that arm the immune system against Ebola. Then, as they reported last week in the journal Nature, the researchers exposed the animals to the most lethal strain of the virus. The inoculated monkeys survived.
If scientists can come up with a similar vaccine that works for humans, the question becomes, who would bring it to market? Because the disease has not been an imminent threat outside Africa, drug companies have had little incentive to produce a human vaccine. But Pakistan last week reported nine Ebola deaths, and researchers argue that the time to push ahead is now, before the disease becomes a worldwide threat. Referring to AIDS, coauthor Gary Nabel warns: "We've seen what happens when a virus can't be checked early on."
This story appears in the December 11, 2000 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.