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Senate Panels Explore Ebola Response

September 19, 2014— The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Sept. 16 held a joint hearing entitled “Ebola in West Africa: A Global Challenge and Public Health Threat.” 

Sen. Tom Harkin, who chairs both the HELP Committee and the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee opened the hearing by noting, “As this crisis illustrates, we must stop chasing diseases after the fact and start building public health systems around the globe capable of detecting and stopping diseases before they cross borders.”

Describing it as “ferocious and spreading exponentially,” Beth Bell, M.D., M.P.H., director, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testified the current outbreak is the first that has been recognized in West Africa, and the biggest and most complex Ebola epidemic ever documented.

Dr. Bell told the committees, “There is an urgent need to help bordering countries to better prepare for cases now, and to strengthen detection and response capabilities throughout Africa.” She added, “There is a window of opportunity to control the spread of this disease, but that window is closing. If we do not act now to stop Ebola, we could be dealing with it for years to come affecting larger areas of Africa.”

“We need to strengthen the global response, which requires close collaboration with the World Health Organization, additional assistance from international partners, and a strong and coordinated United States government response,” she explained, adding, “Controlling the outbreak will be costly and will require a sustained effort by the U.S. and the world community.”

She said CDC does not view Ebola as a significant public health threat to the United States, but if an infected traveler arrives in the U.S., “we are confident that our public health and health care systems can prevent an Ebola outbreak here and recognize that the authorities and investments provided by your committees have put us in this strong position.”

Anthony Fauci, M.D., director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), traced the involvement of NIH and NIAID with Ebola back to the post-9/11 anthrax attacks on the Capitol, which led to broad multiagency efforts to develop biodefense against deliberate as well as unexpected naturally emerging and reemerging threats.

He agreed that the best way to contain this epidemic “is by intensifying infection control capabilities… the ability to isolate, identify, contact trace, protect our health care workers with personal protective equipment.”

Dr. Fauci went on to say, “But if we want to be prepared in a durable way, we need countermeasures. NIAID conducts basic and clinical research, but also supplies resources for researchers in industry and in academia to get to our end-game, which is better diagnostics and, of course, therapeutics and vaccines.”

He described some of the promising therapeutics, such as ZMapp, a combination of three artificially produced antibodies directed against the Ebola virus, which he said “has been shown to be very promising in an animal model” and has been given for the first time to humans.

Dr. Fauci said NIH started the first Phase I clinical trial on an Ebola vaccine, developed by NIAID and GlaxoSmithKline, Sept. 2 at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Robin Robinson, Ph.D., director, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response, Department of Health and Human Services, explained BARDA works with its federal partners to transition medical countermeasures from early development at NIH and Department of Defense (DOD) and to advance development towards ultimate FDA approval. “Today we are transitioning several promising Ebola vaccine and therapeutic candidates from early development under NIH and DOD support to advance development,” he said

Dr. Robinson said BARDA supports a large-scale production of medical countermeasures that are response measured for public health emergencies, including assisting the Ebola vaccine and therapeutic manufacturers with scaled-up manufacturing.

Noting “the size and scope and multiple government agencies involved,” Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said the situation needs a point person “that actually can command personnel and organize working with us on, again, a bipartisan basis for the kind of resources to do this.”

Several senators inquired whether the Ebola virus could mutate to a form that could be transmitted more easily. Dr. Fauci replied, “It is an unusual situation where a mutation would completely change the way a virus is transmitted. It's not impossible, but it would be unlikely.”

He said NIAID “has an arrangement with one of the best microbial sequencing groups in the world” at the Broad Institute in Boston to examine samples and make sure that mutations are not occurring that would have an important impact on biological functions such as transmissibility.”

Contact:

Dave Moore
Senior Director, Government Relations
Telephone: 202-828-0559
Email: dbmoore@aamc.org

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Jason Kleinman
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Email: jkleinman@aamc.org