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Last Updated

10 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, August 9, 2003


From Bug to Drug

AT FIRST GLANCE, a breakthrough in the creation of a vaccine against the Ebola virus might not seem to be of enormous relevance to Americans. Ebola is terrifying: It dissolves the body's internal organs and leaves victims oozing blood. Yet Ebola kills its victims so quickly that it has rarely spread outside of central Africa, where more than 1,000 people have died from the disease since it was first diagnosed in 1976. Nevertheless, the announcement last week that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases have developed a vaccine that protects monkeys from Ebola, after a single injection, has broad significance, both for its potential to help Africans and because it has enormous implications for the U.S. government's nascent program to combat bioterrorism along with other new infectious diseases.

This is true, first of all, because even if Ebola doesn't exist in the United States now, it could in the future -- perhaps in weaponized form. Ken Alibek, a defector who worked in the Soviet bioweapons laboratories, has long claimed that the Soviet Union was researching ways to combine properties of the Ebola virus with the smallpox virus to create a deadlier, faster-spreading plague. Considering the speed with which viruses now move around the world -- the SARS epidemic being the latest evidence -- Ebola could also arrive here naturally, via a human or even an animal carrier.

Some believe that the technology used to create the Ebola vaccine also could be a model for vaccines against other viruses. Scientists and public health workers who think about bioterrorism are rarely unanimous about everything. But they concur that a major component of new research has to be not merely the creation of specific vaccines but the development of sophisticated genetic engineering techniques that will help scientists move "from bug to drug" -- from the discovery of a virus to the discovery of a vaccine or a cure -- far more quickly. The Ebola vaccine was made by inserting Ebola genes into an ordinary respiratory virus, the kind that can cause common cold symptoms. Using the same technique, NIAID is trying to develop vaccines for SARS as well as HIV-AIDS.

Finally, the relatively swift development of this vaccine shows what can be achieved when priorities are shifted. Before Sept. 11, 2001, no one imagined that it would be possible to create an Ebola vaccine before the end of the decade. Thanks in part to extra funding allocated since then, some scientists expect a vaccine for humans by 2006. Anthony S. Fauci, director of NIAID, calls the vaccine an example of the relationship between "resource input" -- more government funding -- and "bottom line results." The vaccine also benefits from recent improvements in the traditionally rocky relationship between government and the biotech industry. Some of the next stages of Ebola vaccine development will be taken over by a biotech company, which will test and manufacture the vaccine, and NIAID is cooperating with GenVec Inc. to produce the SARS vaccine as well. It's proof, in other words, of what can be done when the biotech industry, the National Institutes of Health and other government research agencies all focus on the same issues at once -- and of what could be achieved, both for biodefense and bioscience, with generous funding for basic biotech research.