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Science

Ebola research: Fewer patients, but far more data

For months, Ebola research has been running in high gear. Now, the number of infected people has decreased. How will this influence research into the disease?

Tens of thousands of Ebola patients' data sets are waiting to be analyzed in laboratories and research institutions. This data provides an essential basis for Ebola research.

"At the moment, no can say what we'll know by the end of this," says Stephan Günther, a virologist at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical medicine in Hamburg (BNITM). "The data was collected in several studies, some of which are still in process, and all of it will be a big amount of work for the scientific community."

The virologist estimates that it will take at least two years to process it all.

Fewer patients

Now, the situation has calmed - and Ebola research continues, albeit under different circumstances. For clinical studies, there simply are not enough patients, Günther says.

Professor Stephan Günther (Photo: BNI)

Stephan Günther, a virologist at the BNITM in Hamburg

"This is good news, of course. Liberia is practically Ebola free, and also, the cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea have gone down considerably. But it is tremendously difficult to find participants for phase III studies, for example, if nobody is sick." Phase III studies are typically conducted on a large group of patients to test a drug's effectiveness.

With Ebola, this means it will now be impossible to prove that a given therapy actually works.

Before the outbreak, the virus was only one of many, which the virologists had to cope with - like the Marburg or Lassa virus. But when the outbreak occurred, Ebola received more attention. Private charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as national governments provided funds to research institutes and universities.

In Germany, the Max Planck Institute and the German research umbrella organization the Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft (DFG) supported the effort. Many researchers applied for grants and stipends.

Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of the BNITM (Photo: BNI)

Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, the head of virus diagnostics at the BNITM in Hamburg

"Many good projects are now under way, and those - of course - will also be finished," says Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, head of virology at the BNI. "Finally, there was enough money to undertake larger research projects."

More research needed

The pharmaceutical industry wants both vaccines currently being tested to continue through clinical trials, says Schmidt-Chanasit. Only then will they be available in the event of a new outbreak.

As for other Ebola medicines, manufacturers are becoming more cautious.

"One pharmaceutical company, for example, said that it would no longer pay to continue its research, because there are not enough patients to even test the drug," he said.

As long as there continue to be individual cases of Ebola, the research has to continue, he says, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) need to stay involved.

"It is now necessary to bring all those resources - including mobile laboratories - that were brought to these countries during the peak of the crisis to exactly those regions where there are still individual cases of Ebola," Schmidt-Chanasit, says.

He argues that it is of paramount importance to treat the remaining patients as carefully as possible and bury the last bodies safely.

Better prepared?

The doctor says that medical personnel are now better prepared about how to deal with another potential Ebola outbreak.

"The learned how to diagnose correctly and quickly. Hundreds of doctors and nurses have since been trained to deal with highly infectious patients. Such knowledge did not exist before Ebola."

Medical personell treating Ebola patients (Photo: Reuters)

Medical personnel are better prepared today to deal with highly infectious diseases

The past months have also provided researchers with valuable information. "We have a detailed collection of probes from deceased patients. We know how old they were, and which other illnesses they had," Schmidt-Chanasit says.

This will help researchers refine the treatment to find out how the virus replicates in cells, how the immune system reacts to the infection and how diagnostics can be improved.

"This is a great opportunity to understand the disease better - and researchers will seize it - I am convinced."