ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This is a column about Ebola virus, so let’s get one thing clear right away. The odds of anyone reading this newspaper getting Ebola are incredibly small. New Mexicans would be better advised to worry about catching flu.
That said, Ebola is a very nasty bug, said University of New Mexico researcher Steven Bradfute, a Portales native and immunologist who has been studying the disease since 2005.
Essentially, the virus turns the body’s immune response against itself. The virus is effective at blocking the interferon type I protein, which is the body’s initial response to infection. The body next starts an inflammation response to the infection. The damaged cells release chemicals that cause blood vessels to leak fluid into the tissues to keep the virus from further contact with body tissues.
That response goes into overdrive until the victim’s blood can’t clot. The patient dies from a mix of internal bleeding, shock and subsequent multiple organ failure. That is why Ebola and similar diseases are known as hemorrhagic.
Death rates are in the 60- to 80-percent range.
“That’s our understanding now,” Bradfute said. “We don’t know a lot.”
Bradfute is working to make some existing vaccines that show promise against the virus more effective.
Concern in the U.S. about the deadly disease heightened last week with a patient in Dallas becoming the first diagnosed case in this country. Meanwhile, NBC news reported that an American freelance cameraman working for the network in Liberia tested positive for the virus and will be flown back to the U.S.
About 7,200 cases of Ebola have been reported worldwide, almost all of them in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. About 3,400 infected people have died in West Africa. This is by far the biggest known outbreak of the disease in history. What makes it scary is that only a month ago the death toll stood at 1,350.
Working to defeat any virus is tough, but Ebola is especially tough, Bradfute said.
Consider the common cold. There are 200 viruses that can cause it, and they all mutate, Bradfute said. Influenza viruses mutate quickly, too, which is why a different vaccine against flu has to be developed every year. The virus that causes AIDS mutates like crazy. Finding a good vaccine under such circumstances might be like trying to hit a bull’s-eye while it swirls by on a centrifuge.
Ebola presents special challenges.
There are very few people who can work on Ebola, Bradfute said. You can only work on the live virus in a biosafety Level 4 laboratory. There are only three or four of them in the United States capable of handling Ebola, including one at Fort Detrick, Md., where Bradfute spent six years.
The work is difficult. Bradfute said it takes one year and $100,000 to train someone to work safely in a Level 4 lab. You wear a kind of space suit the entire time you’re in the lab. When you come out, you first take a chemical shower in the suit. Then, you shower yourself.
UNM does not have a Level 4 lab so Bradfute works on a couple of Ebola genes, which, absent the other five genes that make up the virus, are harmless.
Before now, Ebola outbreaks have been sporadic, they have infected few people, and they have occurred in hard-to-reach areas. Researchers have had little first-hand understanding of the disease to work with, Bradfute said. Records from local medical personnel fighting outbreaks might say nothing more than a patient showed up at a clinic or hospital with a fever or a rash, then died. Usually there will be no notes about the patient’s temperature, blood pressure or treatment.
The federal government has funded a lot of hemorrhagic virus research over the past two decades, but most of it was defense-related, Bradfute said. The Soviet Union had a biological weapon based on a hemorrhagic virus, so research went into making the Soviets’ weapon less effective.
There is also a political and economic component. Where should time, money and effort go? Into Ebola or, say, malaria? There were 207 million cases of malaria in 2012 and more than 600,000 deaths in 2012, according to the World Health Organization.
Ebola is a lot harder to get than flu or the common cold. It is spread through contact with bodily fluids. That’s a family-friendly way to say that you don’t usually get Ebola unless you get an infected patient’s urine, feces, blood or vomit in your mouth, eyes, nose or a cut in your skin, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Sweat, saliva, tears, semen and breast milk can be dangerous, too. Ebola can be hard to recognize because when it first appears it looks a lot like flu.
Creating a new vaccine is a slow and arduous task. Bradfute thinks he needs two years or so to finish his research. If he’s successful and can make vaccines more effective in a laboratory setting, he’ll publish his findings. Then a researcher at Detrik or another Level 4 lab could try to use the improved vaccine on a live virus. If that test is successful, the reasonable hope is a drug company will see the promise of Bradfute’s work and develop a vaccine based on it. There will ensue animal trials, then human trials.
Then, in six to 10 years, a better vaccine might find its way to Africa.