USAMRIID Supports Ebola Virus Outbreak in West Africa

Dr. Randal Schoepp of the USAMRIID inspects packing cases

Dr. Randal Schoepp of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases inspects packing cases filled with laboratory supplies prior to departing for Liberia Sept. 25 to support Ebola virus diagnostic efforts. (Photo by William Discher, USAMRIID)

From on-site laboratory support in Liberia, to training of key personnel, to accelerated research efforts on diagnostic, vaccine and treatment approaches, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is playing a significant role in assisting the Ebola virus outbreak response in West Africa.

Ebola virus causes a severe, often fatal hemorrhagic disease in humans and nonhuman primates. Currently there are no licensed vaccines or drugs to fight the disease, and case fatality rates as high as 90 percent have been reported in past outbreaks. As of Oct. 15, the World Health Organization reported at least 8,997 cases and 4,493 deaths in seven affected countries. These include Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Spain, as well as the first-ever case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States. That patient, a man who had recently traveled from Liberia to this country, died Oct. 8.

The U.S. Department of Defense is supporting the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of a U.S. whole of government response effort to the Ebola virus outbreak, as announced by President Obama on Sept. 16. U.S. military personnel are deploying to West Africa in support of the effort, called Operation United Assistance. In addition to setting up a regional staging base to facilitate transportation of equipment, supplies and personnel, the U.S. military is establishing additional treatment centers in Liberia and providing medical personnel to train health-care workers in the region.

At USAMRIID, the response effort spans the Institute's research and support divisions and there is no sign of the operational tempo slowing any time soon, according to Col. Erin P. Edgar, commander of the institute.

"This is definitely not business as usual," he said.

Late September, USAMRIID was asked to provide training to deploying U.S. forces, according to Lt. Col. Neal E. Woollen, who directs the Institute's biosecurity program. Several personnel have volunteered to serve on mobile training teams that travel to deploying units to train and certify troops who will be working in Ebola-affected areas of West Africa. Training is focused on proper wearing of protective equipment, as well as decontamination procedures.

On-Site Laboratory Support

Since April 2014, USAMRIID and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Integrated Research Facility have provided personnel, training and diagnostic laboratory support to the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research on a continuous rotational basis, according to Randal J. Schoepp, Ph.D., chief of USAMRIID's Applied Diagnostics branch. He and several others helped to set up an Ebola virus testing laboratory in Liberia and trained local personnel to run diagnostic tests on suspected Ebola hemorrhagic fever clinical samples.

Schoepp said USAMRIID has been working on a collaborative project in West Africa since 2006. Because the team was working on disease identification and diagnostics in the region, he added, "We had people on hand who were already evaluating samples and volunteered to start testing right away when the current Ebola outbreak started."

In addition to providing laboratory testing and training support for the current outbreak, USAMRIID has provided more than 10,000 Ebola assays to support laboratory capabilities in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The institute also supplied personal protective equipment to Metabiota Inc., a non-government organization involved in the testing.

Edgar called the project "a great example of medical diplomacy at work."

"This collaboration allows USAMRIID to bring our expertise to bear in responding to an international health crisis," he said. "In addition, it enables us to test the medical diagnostics that we develop in a real-world setting where these diseases naturally occur."

Diagnostic Tools

USAMRIID research led to the only laboratory test, or assay, currently authorized to diagnose Ebola in U.S. citizens, according to David A. Norwood, Ph.D., chief of USAMRIID's Diagnostic Systems Division. The assay, which detects the Zaire strain of Ebola virus in patient samples, is called the Ebola Zaire Real-Time PCR Assay Test Kit. It was developed, manufactured and tested with help from the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity.

While the test has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the FDA has authorized its use under an Emergency Use Authorization granted in August 2014. According to Norwood, the EUA provides a legal basis for the use of unapproved medical products, including diagnostics, in a declared emergency when there are no alternatives. The test is available at authorized DOD laboratories in the U.S. and overseas, as well as select CDC Laboratory Response Network state public health labs throughout the country for testing U.S citizens.

"This assay is also being used in West Africa for rapid diagnosis of host nation patients," said Norwood. "So there is no disparity between the diagnostic capabilities that are being used in-country and those that are available for testing U.S. citizens. While the labeling and execution is somewhat different for regulatory purposes for testing U.S. citizens, the same capability is available for diagnostic testing for everyone."

Issuance of the EUA was a collaborative effort among several agencies: Medical Countermeasure Systems, U.S. Army Medical Command; Health Affairs, Readiness Division, Health Care Operations Directorate; Joint Program Executive Office Critical Reagents Program; the DOD Clinical Laboratory Improvement Program Office; and the recipient laboratories, including five DOD labs and 15 CDC-LRN state public health laboratories.

Drug and Vaccine Research

USAMRIID is leading the evaluation of several promising Ebola medical countermeasure candidates, including therapeutics and vaccines, according to scientific director Sina Bavari, Ph.D.

Bavari, an expert at building public-private partnerships, says the current outbreak offers researchers an opportunity to accelerate the development of medical products to prevent and treat the disease through collaboration with pharmaceutical companies and other government agencies.

Among the products being evaluated by USAMRIID are four potential therapies, including synthetically made, small-molecule drugs that have shown efficacy against a broad range of viral diseases, according to Bavari. One of these drugs, known as BCX4430, has been tested in animal models at USAMRIID; its parent company is in the process of filing an Investigational New Drug application with the FDA to begin Phase I clinical trials in humans.

Two other compounds of interest are oral favipiravir, dubbed T-705, which is already in Phase III clinical trials as a potential influenza treatment, and AL-8176, currently is in Phase II clinical trials for Respiratory Syncytial Virus.

"If we can evaluate a drug that's already in development for another use, and show that it has potential against Ebola virus, that saves us years of research and development," Bavari explained.

The fourth therapeutic candidate being studied at USAMRIID is Z-Mapp, a "cocktail" of three antibodies, one of which was developed by USAMRIID. This drug made headlines when it was used to treat a handful of people infected during the current outbreak, including two American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia and recovered at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

Previous studies at USAMRIID with an earlier version of Z-Mapp showed that it could protect monkeys from Ebola even when administered five days after infection, according to John M. Dye, Ph.D., branch chief for viral immunology. He said additional studies of Z-Mapp in nonhuman primates will begin at USAMRIID later this month. Those efforts will help to determine dosing--the optimal amounts of antibody that can be safely administered and still provide protection.

In addition, there are a number of Ebola virus vaccine platforms in various stages of development, Dye said. Two that have been studied extensively at USAMRIID are the VLP (virus-like particle) and the VRP (virus replicon particle) vaccine approaches. Other vaccine approaches include those based on adenovirus (currently in Phase I clinical trials) as well as the rVSV (recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus) platform.

USAMRIID's Division of Medicine is providing medical monitor support to the Phase I clinical trial of the rVSV vaccine, scheduled to begin this month at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

According to Bavari, USAMRIID is continuing to investigate potential treatments and vaccine candidates for Ebola, with several laboratory and nonhuman primate studies scheduled for the near future. The success of these research efforts will depend, in part, on future funding levels.

Rewarding Experience

It's not often that USAMRIID scientists get to take their expertise out of the laboratory and into a field setting. For Schoepp, the experience has been "rewarding," though he says he'll be ready to stay home for a while after completing his fourth trip to West Africa in just six months.

"What makes me really proud is that the laboratory staff we trained [in West Africa] jumped right into the fray, and thanks to the training we provided, they didn't even blink," said Schoepp. "They started testing right away; they knew what to do."

While the scientists at the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research put in long, hot hours wearing protective gear in the laboratory, their work environment is far from the only challenge they face, according to Schoepp. Diagnostics personnel are under a great deal of pressure to run the tests accurately, because the results they provide to the health care team literally can mean the difference between life and death for a patient.

"It's critical to diagnose Ebola-infected individuals, of course, but it's also important to tell people they're not infected," he said. "Being able to give them an answer--so they can go home and not worry--that's pretty satisfying."

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Last Modified Date: 20-Oct-2014