In the past decade, there has been an increase in infectious disease outbreaks. The most notable of these was the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014 that left more than 11,000 dead and many of the 17,000 survivors still requiring post-recovery medical care. The threat of infectious disease outbreaks continues today. Public health officials and business leaders like Bill Gates have long warned that the world is not ready for the next pandemic.
Infectious diseases can rapidly spread from one village to any country in the world in less than 36 hours. On average, there are 100 infectious disease outbreaks a day around the world and most countries are not prepared to respond to an epidemic.
Global health officials say it is vital to stop disease outbreaks at their source before they become pandemics. In responding to the latest Ebola outbreak in the DRC, the Department of Defense has collaborated with the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other interagency and international partners.
This is the tenth outbreak of Ebola in the DRC since the virus was discovered in 1976 and will likely be one of the country’s most lethal outbreaks. Ebola response teams face difficulties on the ground, exacerbated by misinformation and mistrust due to decades of conflict and civil war. This contributes to a reluctance of some local populations to allow Ebola response teams to vaccinate, conduct contact tracing and perform safe and dignified burials, said the WHO in a statement.
The JPEO-CBRND has been at the forefront of the DOD’s response to the outbreak, contributing to the Ebola support effort with continued development of medical countermeasures to protect, identify and treat the Ebola virus.
Medical countermeasures include vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. They are a critical component of a multi-layered defense strategy to protect the warfighter, accurately diagnose exposure or illness and provide post-exposure treatments that save the lives of U.S. and allied service members. While the JPEO medical countermeasures were originally developed to protect the warfighter, they serve a dual purpose: the JPEO leverages its Ebola medical products to also support allies and international partners in this time of need.
In the DRC, the JPEO-CBRND and its partners have deployed two investigational therapeutic drugs to treat healthcare workers and individuals diagnosed with Ebola. Over 90 patients have received the two drugs due to the collaboration between JPEO-CBRND and interagency partners like the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the CDC, as well as with international organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations.
An additional investigational vaccine is currently being administered in the DRC and Uganda. The JPEO and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency initially funded the vaccine, with the latter of which providing early testing and development activities. Since the vaccination campaign began in the beginning of August, more than 57,000 people have been vaccinated.
The JPEO furthermore developed an FDA-approved Ebola virus Enzyme-Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay, or ELISA, which is currently in use in multiple African countries, including the DRC. ELISA is an analytical biochemistry technique that uses antibodies to detect the presence of specific biomolecules, such as peptides, proteins, antigens and hormones, in a sample. JPEO continues to provide critical Ebola virus ELISA reagents to the DRC through its NIAID partners as well as provide technical input on the Ebola virus ELISA method.
The WHO considers the likelihood that the virus will spread across the DRC and neighboring countries as “very high.” In particular, Uganda is in high alert and recently began vaccinating its first responders and health workers in anticipation of the outbreak jumping borders.
Over the past two years, the JPEO set up the Joint Mobile Emerging Disease Intervention Clinical Capability, or JMEDICC, in western Uganda for this kind of scenario. The JMEDICC site at Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital enables the JPEO and other agency and international partners to rapidly execute clinical research of experimental therapeutics, such as the two drugs already deployed to the DRC, and provide treatment and patient care to individuals with Ebola or other hemorrhagic fever viruses. The JMEDICC site also uses the JPEO’s diagnostic equipment to rapidly identify and diagnose the Ebola virus in suspected cases in addition to sequencing samples to track the spread of the outbreak.
As part of Uganda National Task Force’s response to the outbreak, the JPEO and JMEDICC teams provide support by leveraging the site’s laboratories, isolation wards and staff to run clinical trials while also saving and protecting the lives of those infected. Though the virus has yet to cross the Ugandan border, the JMEDICC team treated patients infected with a less lethal but still dangerous virus known as Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever.
“While our mission is primarily to support the warfighter, we also assist our domestic public health and international allies and partners, such as our support to this Ebola outbreak,” said Dr. Bruce Jette, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology. “The Army’s response is saving lives and we’ll continue to provide that support.”
Although the outbreak remains dangerous and unpredictable, the WHO remains optimistic that continued local, regional, and international support will help to end the outbreak and save lives.