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By Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Over the next few months, the United States will probably spend a billion dollars responding to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the director of the National Institutes of Health said in Seattle on Wednesday.

Factor in the amount being invested by other nations, and “it’s going to be an enormous number,” Dr. Francis Collins said at a Gates Foundation conference.

But much of that expense could have been avoided had the U.S. and others provided adequate funding to push forward the development of Ebola vaccines and drugs that have been languishing for years, Collins said.

“If one wants to be prepared, it costs money to do so,” he said. “We have been shortchanging that for the past decade, at least in the U.S.”

Collins was part of a panel on Ebola added to an event commemorating the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges program of innovative health research. The foundation has pledged $50 million to help fight the Ebola epidemic, in which nearly 3,900 people have died and more than 8,000 have been sickened across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

While much of that money is going to bolster the on-the-ground response, the foundation is also working to accelerate progress on treatments and vaccines, said Chris Karp, vaccine-team leader for the philanthropy.

Gates is funding efforts to step up production of ZMapp, a promising drug that protected monkeys from Ebola even days after the animals were infected. The drug was administered to a handful of people infected recently, including two American aid workers. They survived, but others who got the drug did not — so it’s still unclear how well it works in humans.

But the current method of producing the drug in tobacco plants is slow, Karp said. Gates provided money to explore large-scale production methods.

The foundation is also funding work on the use of the immune-booster immunoglobulin as a treatment for Ebola, and on methods to isolate and mass produce antibodies that target the virus, including antibodies from people who survived infection.

The World Health Organization is fast-tracking preliminary human trials on two promising vaccines, compressing a process that normally takes four to five years into a few months, said WHO’s Vasee Moorthy.

In collaboration with the British charity Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation is assisting in that effort, too, paying for production of the vaccine used in the trials.

An audience member asked why the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which owns one of the vaccines, doesn’t pay for the production itself so the charities could spend more of their money in the affected countries.

David Vaughn, the GlaxoSmithKline representative on the panel, sidestepped the question, pointing out the need for multiple partners to fund such an ambitious endeavor.

Vaughn said nine trials could be under way before the end of this year. GlaxoSmithKline is also exploring the unprecedented step of conducting preliminary and advanced trials simultaneously, to more quickly determine if the vaccine is safe and effective.

A British expert who has been modeling the spread of Ebola, said he doubts the drugs or vaccines will be ready in time to have much impact on the current outbreak. The way to bring the virus under control is through the standard tools of public health, such as isolating infected people and tracing their contacts, said Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College, London.

But in countries with threadbare health systems, even those basic measures have been difficult.

The epidemic appears to have leveled off in Guinea, where it was detected early, Ferguson said. But in Sierra Leone, where there was virtually no system to spot and track infections, it continues to build.

The one technological tool that could make a difference now would be a quick way to diagnose the disease, Ferguson added.

The Gates Foundation is working on that, too, Karp said. But, despite his affiliation with a tech-oriented organization, Karp agreed that the immediate answer isn’t new drugs or devices. “The fundamental barriers are not technical,” he said. “They’re systems. They’re resources.”

AFP Photo/Mike Stone

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