There is some welcome good news about the Ebola epidemic today: The outbreak in Nigeria is officially over. Today the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the country has gone the required 42 days since the last new case was isolated and is “free of Ebola virus transmission.” The news follows several other hopeful notes. On Friday, Senegal received the same designation, after following up on contacts from a case imported from Guinea. Yesterday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that close contacts of the first case diagnosed in the United States had completed their 21-day isolation period and were uninfected. In addition, a nurse in Spain and a Norwegian worker for Doctors Without Borders have both recovered from their infections.
Every couple of days, the World Health Organization (WHO) issues a “situation update” on the Ebola epidemic, with new numbers of cases and deaths for each of the affected countries. These numbers―9216 and 4555 respectively, according to Friday’s update―are instantly reported and tweeted around the world. They’re also quickly translated into ever-more frightening graphics by people who follow the epidemic closely, such as virologist Ian Mackay of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and Maia Majumder, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who visualizes the data on her website and publishes projections on HealthMap, an online information system for outbreaks.
But it’s widely known that the real situation is much worse than the numbers show because many cases don't make it into the official statistics. Underreporting occurs in every disease outbreak anywhere, but keeping track of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone has been particularly difficult. And the epidemic unfolds, underreporting appears to be getting worse. (“It’s a mess,” Mackay says.)
So what do the WHO numbers really mean—and how can researchers estimate the actual number of victims? Here are answers to some key questions.
The White House today stepped into an ongoing debate about controversial virus experiments with a startling announcement: It is halting all federal funding for so-called gain-of-function (GOF) studies that alter a pathogen to make it more transmissible or deadly so that experts can work out a U.S. government-wide policy for weighing the risks. Federal officials are also asking the handful of researchers doing ongoing work in this area to agree to a voluntary moratorium.
The “pause on funding,” a White House blog states, applies to “any new studies … that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.” The government also “encourages those currently conducting this type of work—whether federally funded or not—to voluntarily pause their research while risks and benefits are being reassessed.” Research and testing of naturally occurring forms of these pathogens will continue.
At an oversight hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday, lawmakers grilled health officials over the response to the first domestic cases of Ebola and asked them to respond to the idea—which many Republicans now promote—of banning incoming flights from West Africa. When Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained that restrictions would only cause travelers to reroute through other countries, making them harder to track, Representative Henry Waxman (D–CA) came to his defense with a visual aid.
Remember Yucca Mountain? In another turn in the 27-year odyssey of the proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada, a key safety evaluation published yesterday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gives it a thumbs up. The 781-page report concludes that the proposed site, as described in a 2008 application by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), includes "multiple barriers to isolate radioactivity from the environment" for hundreds of thousands of years, commission staff said in a statement. That should allow it to comply with standards to protect ground water and people in the distant future.
The lengthy document is the second of five assessment volumes to be published on Yucca, which would theoretically hold up to 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste for up to 1 million years after it would be sealed. Chapters systematically assess the geology of the site and nearby aquifer, how waste will be packaged and stored, and the fate of the “drip shield” that is intended to protect the packaged waste from ground water. “DOE has demonstrated compliance with the NRC regulatory requirements for postclosure safety,” the document states.
The Yucca site was designated in 1987 legislation as a repository and has faced political opposition in Nevada ever since. In 2008, DOE submitted a license application to open the repository, but withdrew it 2 years later. In response, the states of Washington and South Carolina—both large producers of nuclear waste—and others filed suit. Last year, a court ordered NRC to move forward with its review and licensing process.
Can volcanic eruptions be predicted?
The question has been very much in the news in Japan since the 27 September eruption of Mount Ontake. Despite 24/7 monitoring of the mountain for telltale warning signs, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) failed to predict the eruption. It surprised several hundred hikers enjoying a glorious autumn day on the 3067-meter mountain, leaving 56 confirmed dead and seven still missing—the country's deadliest eruption in nearly 90 years.
On Monday, a popular TV show asked whether the country could do better. Each week, Beat Takeshi's TV Tackle features a group of celebrities quizzing experts on topics in the news. The most recent program brought together a panel of earth scientists and others concerned about volcanoes (on YouTube in Japanese here). "There is no way to precisely predict eruptions," said Robert Geller, a geophysicist at the University of Tokyo famous for his criticism of Japan's earthquake prediction efforts. He added that prediction efforts might succeed once in a thousand tries. "If society recognizes that, then warnings are surely possible," he added. Hideki Shimamura, a geophysicist at Musashino Gakuin University in Sayama, agreed. "I’m rather critical about the idea of eruption prediction," he said.
The defense firm Lockheed Martin sent tech geeks into a frenzy yesterday when it revealed a few scant details of a “compact fusion reactor” (CFR) that a small team has been working on at the company’s secretive Skunk Works in Palmdale, California. The company says that its innovative method for confining the superhot ionized gas, or plasma, necessary for fusion means that it can make a working reactor 1/10 the size of current efforts, such as the international ITER fusion project under construction in France.
Being able to build such a small and presumably cheap reactor would be world-changing—ITER will cost at least $20 billion to build and will only prove the principle, not generate any electricity. But with little real information, no one is prepared to say that Lockheed’s approach is going to spark a revolution. “You can’t conclude anything from this,” says Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Abingdon, U.K. “If it wasn’t Lockheed Martin, you’d say it was probably a bunch of crazies.”
The Lockheed team predicts that it will take 5 years to prove the concept for the new reactor. After that, they estimate it would take another 5 years to build a prototype that would produce 100 megawatts (MW) of electricity—enough for a small city—and fit on the back of a truck. A Web page with video on the Lockheed site even talks of powering ships and aircraft with a CFR.
Lockheed statements reveal little about the nature of the reactor. Aviation Week yesterday carried the most detailed account having interviewed the team leader, Thomas McGuire.
At a U.S. congressional hearing today that examined the country’s public health response to Ebola, an official from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it’s working to develop “a flexible and innovative protocol” to evaluate experimental treatments for the disease. The fact that no such common protocol already exists speaks to the complex practical and ethical issues that surround the use of untested drugs and vaccines in the midst of explosive spread of a virus that kills more than half the people it infects.
Given the epidemic’s unprecedented scale, a panel of bioethicists and infectious disease specialists convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) in August unanimously decided that it was ethical to use unproven treatments and preventions against this deadly disease. The panel also said there was a “moral obligation” to gather and share scientifically relevant data about whether these products were safe and effective. But it did not suggest how this should happen, and as the FDA official’s testimony indicated, new views are still emerging while others are being refined.
Over the past few months, subsequent WHO consultations and opinion pieces by prominent public health experts and ethicists have spelled out detailed visions of how to proceed with testing of experimental Ebola medicines. The issues, both practical and ethical, are starkly different for drugs and vaccines. Unproven drugs go to the sick, who are fighting for their lives and often have few options, whereas experimental vaccines are tested in healthy people—most will be first-line workers—in an effort to protect them from the deadly virus. “Ethical arguments are not the same for all levels of risk,” noted 17 prominent researchers and ethicists from 11 countries in an editorial about Ebola drug testing published online on 10 October in The Lancet.
A second health care worker at Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas has tested positive for the Ebola virus. Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that its investigations “increasingly suggest” that she and a colleague diagnosed with Ebola on 14 October were at highest risk of infection between 28 and 30 September, when Thomas Eric Duncan had been admitted to the hospital but had yet to receive confirmation that he was infected.
“These two health care workers both worked on those days, and both had extensive contact with the patient when the patient had extensive production of body fluids because of vomiting and diarrhea,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden at a press conference today.
The second health care worker flew from Cleveland, Ohio, to Dallas on 13 October, the day before she developed symptoms, leading CDC to try to contact the 132 passengers and the crew on that flight. (The woman had an "elevated" temperature of 99.5°F, or 37.5°C; that's below the threshold for a fever, which is at 100.4°F, or 38.0°C.) Frieden said the woman, whose job he did not specify, “should not have traveled on a commercial airline” but stressed she did not vomit and was not bleeding during the trip. “The level of risk of people around her would be extremely low,” he said.
Many U.S. fusion scientists are blasting a report that seeks to map out a 10-year strategic plan for their field, calling it “flawed,” “unsatisfactory,” and the product of a rushed process rife with potential conflicts of interest. One result: Last week, most members of a 23-person government advisory panel had to recuse themselves from voting on the report as a result of potential conflicts.
“The whole process was unsatisfactory,” says Martin Greenwald of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Plasma Science and Fusion Center in Cambridge.
Achieving fusion—nuclear reactions that have the potential to produce copious, clean energy—requires heating hydrogen fuel to more than 100 million degrees Celsius, causing it to become an ionized gas or plasma. Huge and expensive reactors are needed to contain the superhot plasma long enough for reactions to start. The largest current fusion effort is the ITER tokamak, a machine under construction in France with support from the United States and international partners. But no fusion reactor has yet produced more energy than it consumes.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia’s scientific leaders are cautiously hopeful that the government’s new innovation policy marks a more positive stance on research.
“Science is the center of industry policy under the Abbott government,” Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane—who has responsibility for science—told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio after the release Tuesday of its Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda.
The 132-page report sets out four goals to foster innovation, including a better business environment, a more skilled labor force, and improved infrastructure. But science is mentioned in only two of the six initiatives to be implemented over the next 18 months. Macfarlane says the Industry Growth Centres Initiative will see the government invest AU$188.5 million over 4 years to establish “corporate entities” in five areas where Australia has what he calls a “natural advantage.” Three reflect the country’s traditional strengths in mining, energy resources, and agribusiness, while advanced manufacturing and medical technology represent areas in which the government hopes to stimulate growth.
The government also plans to spend an additional AU$12 million in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. As part of this initiative, the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, which is 17 years old, will be replaced with a Commonwealth Science Council (CSC) chaired by the prime minister.
The world of academic publishing is an oligarchy. Not only are the vast majority of highly cited papers authored by an elite 1% of scientists, but a small group of elite journals also get the lion's share of citations and media attention. But this rarified world is becoming more egalitarian, according to a study released 9 October by the team that develops Google Scholar, the free literature search engine now used by virtually every scientist in the world. The study is the strongest evidence yet that the dominance of the elite journals is eroding, thanks in part to how much easier it has become for scientists to find and cite obscure but relevant papers.
As recently as the 1990s, most scientists found each other's work by cracking open a journal that their university subscribed to and reading the articles in print. But even with speed-reading, humans just can't read fast enough to explore more than a tiny portion of the more than 1 million academic papers published every year. The digitization of journals has allowed computers to do the searching for us.
To mark their 10th anniversary next month, the Google Scholar team is taking a short break from building and maintaining their scholarly search engine. "We wanted to take a look back and see how things have changed," says Anurag Acharya, a computer scientist who co-founded the project at Google in 2004.
SHANGHAI, CHINA—Two computational biologists searching for trends in journals indexed in the search engine PubMed stumbled across signs that China’s paper-selling companies remain active, 1 year after Science published a detailed undercover investigation describing a highly sophisticated and lucrative industry.
Guillaume Filion of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Lucas Carey from Pompeu Fabra University, both in Barcelona, downloaded all PubMed records for papers published between January 2012 and this past April. Combing over the abstracts for those 2 million papers using a big data technique called natural language processing, they isolated terms that spiked in use in 2014.
They hoped to find “new topics about to detonate,” Filion says. Not surprisingly, they found an uptick in papers mentioning cutting-edge topics like CRISPR, a gene-editing technique that was named a runner-up for Science’s 2013 Breakthrough of the Year, and lncRNA, or long non-coding RNA, an unusually long form of RNA that is now a hot topic in genomics.
But alongside those more predictable trends, one term stuck out: a little-known database run by the Research Council for Complementary Medicine in London called CISCOM, or the Centralised Information Service for Complementary Medicine. Until 2013, the scholars note, the term “CISCOM” appeared in only two to three papers per year. In February, the database began cropping up once a week.
Chinese anticorruption officials have confirmed that a prominent animal cloning researcher is under arrest for improper use of research funds. Li Ning, a professor at China Agricultural University and a member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), was previously reported to have been under investigation.
The announcement of Li’s arrest was buried in a lengthy bulletin published on 10 October on the website of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). The bulletin summarized problems discovered by an inspection team sent in by the Chinese Communist Party’s disciplinary arm. According to MOST, Li was one of seven scientists from five universities who misused funds totaling 25 million yuan (about $4 million). The ministry did not give details on their alleged malfeasance; all had received funding from major research projects administered by MOST.
Two of the scientists have already received long prison sentences. Chen Yingxu, a prominent water researcher with Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, was convicted of embezzling $1.54 million of grant money and sentenced to 10 years in prison after his trial in January. Chen headed a research program under MOST’s “water pollution control and treatment” project. The other is Song Maoqiang, formerly executive dean of software engineering at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. Song was tried in February, convicted of embezzlement of $110,000 in research funds, and sentenced to 10.5 years in prison. Song’s funding came from MOST’s “key electronic devices, high-end chips and fundamental software development” project. Three researchers funded under the “major drug discovery” project are also in custody, and one other researcher, a colleague of Song’s, has not been charged.
The 2014 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel goes to Jean Tirole, a French economist, for his work studying industries dominated by a few large, powerful firms.
“The prize is about market power and regulation,” said Tore Ellingsen, chair of the prize committee, in a video interview after the announcement in Stockholm today. “What sort of regulations and competition policy do you want in place so that large and mighty firms will act in society's best interest?”
Until the 1980s, regulation researchers sought simple rules that could apply to every industry and dealt essentially with two extreme situations: single monopolies or perfect competition. On the contrary, Tirole's research focuses on oligopolies—markets that are dominated by a few companies—and embraces their complexity and peculiarities, says Reinhilde Veugelers, an economics professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium and senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. He also provided tools to deal with so-called asymmetric information, when public authorities have less information than the firms they are trying to regulate.
A nurse in Dallas who was treating the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States has become infected with the virus herself even though she was wearing protective gear. “At some point, there was a breach in protocol,” said Tom Frieden, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at a press conference this morning.
The nurse, who Frieden said had “extensive contact” with the patient, was wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). The patient, Thomas Eric Duncan from Liberia, died 8 October. Frieden noted that Duncan had respiratory intubation and kidney dialysis as “a desperate measure to try to save his life,” which he suggested may have been linked to the transmission. “Both of those procedures may spread contaminated materials and are considered high-risk procedures,” he said.
Frieden said CDC will “undertake a thorough investigation to understand how this may have happened and we will ramp up infection control to do whatever we can to minimize the risk that there would be any future infections.”
The case has similarities to that of a nurse infected in a Spanish hospital after taking care of a priest who had contracted the disease in Sierra Leone, and both raise questions about the training procedures that hospital staff receive before they come into contact with Ebola patients. “There’s a need to enhance the training and protocol to make sure the protocols are followed,” Frieden said today, and although all U.S. hospitals need to know how to diagnose Ebola infection, it may be safer to provide care at designated facilities that have received more extensive training, he said. “That’s something we'll absolutely be looking at.”
Ocean scientists are working to keep afloat a 16-year-old U.S. competition aimed at encouraging young people to appreciate marine research and join their field. Since 1998, the National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB) has been giving high school students a chance to test their knowledge of all things marine. But federal budget cuts are putting a squeeze on the effort, forcing organizers to cancel some bowls and scramble to find alternative support for others.
“We’re facing some serious funding challenges,” says Kristen Yarincik of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C., which created and oversees NOSB, which is scheduled to begin its next season in February. “There [have] been a lot of cuts to our key funding agencies.”
In particular, the automatic 2013 budget cuts known as the sequester slashed education funding at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOSB’s main financial supporter. “In years past we were able to fund it up to $1 million a year,” says Christos Michalopoulos, NOAA’s deputy director of K–12 and informal education. But in 2013, the total dropped to zero, and in 2014 it rebounded to about $125,000. In 2015, “our hope is that we can give a little bit more.” (Congress will resume work on the budget for fiscal year 2015, which began on 1 October, after the November elections.)
The economies of Germany and Greece may have little in common. But scientists in those two countries—and across Europe—believe that their national science systems are facing similar assaults from what they view as wrong-headed government policies.
In an open letter published Wednesday, prominent science policy advocates from Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom deplore “the systematic destruction of national R&D infrastructures.” The nine authors highlight what they describe as “drastic” budget and hiring cuts at research institutions and universities in an increasing number of countries, a funding bias toward well-established groups, and an increasing emphasis on applied research.
The situation is especially dire in the countries most shaken by the economic crisis, according to Amaya Moro-Martin, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, who summarized the letter in a Nature commentary. Since 2009, the “Spanish civil R&D budget has dropped by 40%, resulting in a reduction of 40% in grants and 30% in human resources programs,” she writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. During that same time frame, Italy has cut its higher education budget by 20%, and the number of permanent positions open to recruitment is down by 90%, says Francesco Sylos Labini, a physicist at the Enrico Fermi Center in Rome. Since last year, there has been virtually no money for basic research grants in Italy, he adds. In Greece, the budget of research centers and universities has been cut by at least 50%, and there’s a freeze on new hiring, notes Varvara Trachana, a cell biologist at the University of Thessaly in Greece.
Hoping to tame the torrent of data churning out of biology labs, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced $32 million in awards in 2014 to help researchers develop ways to analyze and use large biological data sets.
The awards come out of NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative, announced last year after NIH concluded it needed to invest more in efforts to use the growing number of data sets—from genomics, proteins, and imaging to patient records—that biomedical researchers are amassing. For example, in one such “dry biology” project, researchers mixed public data on gene expression in cells and patients with diseases to predict new uses for existing drugs.
The BD2K awards “will help us overcome the obstacles to maximizing the utility of the mammoth data sets that are emerging at an accelerated pace,” said NIH Director Francis Collins in a call today with reporters. The grants, he said, will support computational tools, software, standards, and methods for sharing and using large data sets.
A good beginning is halfway to success, the saying goes—but groundbreaking for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a strong competitor-to-be in the new astronomical landscape, has run into a roadblock. Dozens of native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians gathered at the entrance to Mauna Kea summit on Tuesday to protest further development on their “sacred mountain,” blocking the way for the planned ceremony. Some officials and scientists did manage to reach the construction site at the summit, but the ceremony’s organizers had to cancel planned speeches and locally flavored ceremonies intended to officially begin the project, including the untying of the maile lei and turning of dirt with an O’o stick.
Tuesday’s protests came on top of years of coordination difficulties and delay as a result of concern from native Hawaiians and environmentalists alike over construction of the $1.4 billion telescope on the volcano, which is already home to more than a dozen telescopes. (Protesters have come to coin their own definition for the acronym TMT: Too Many Telescopes.)
Three scientists who overcame the diffraction limit of light to take optical microscopy down to the molecular level have won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry. Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia; Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany; and William Moerner of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, share the prize equally “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” the Nobel Committee announced earlier today.
For more than 100 years, microscopists trying to view very small objects ran up into what was thought to be a fundamental physical limit: that resolution could get no better than half a wavelength of light. Known as the Abbe diffraction limit, it meant that a researcher using visible light—the best method for studying biological samples—couldn’t hope to see things smaller than about 0.2 micrometers, or millionths of a meter. With that restriction, bacteria, cells, and viruses looked either blurry and indistinct or like featureless blobs.
The three new Nobelists overcame that limit using fluorescence, getting the objects under the microscope to emit light themselves to reveal their details. Hell developed a technique called stimulated emission depletion microscopy in 2000. It uses a laser beam to excite molecules to glow, and a second beam to cancel out all fluorescence except that in a small nanometer-scale (billionths of a meter) volume.
Though not generating the headlines it did a week ago, the standoff in Hong Kong between a pro-democracy movement and the government continues. University students are still boycotting classes. Occupy Central movement leaders have threatened to ratchet up acts of civil disobedience. The government has responded by threatening to call off planned talks with student leaders. Regardless of how the impasse is resolved, the events of this fall are likely to reverberate through the university system for years.
At 11 p.m. on 3 October, Peter Mathieson and Joseph Sung, the vice chancellors of University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, respectively, urged students at one of the main protest sites to remain calm and eschew violence. Protesters had set a midnight deadline for Hong Kong's chief executive, Chun-ying Leung, to resign. At 11:30, the government announced an agreement to hold talks with student leaders, who in turn shelved their call for Leung's resignation. Mathieson and Sung then held a midnight press conference welcoming the breakthrough. In a telephone interview with Science, Mathieson, who took the top job at HKU in April, recalled the experience of addressing the protesters and discussed the impact of the democracy movement on the university community. His remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, a Liberian man died from Ebola in a hospital in Dallas, Texas—the first fatal case in the United States. It was the end of a personal tragedy that, according to an article in The New York Times, started when the man helped carry a woman who was 7 months pregnant and dying of Ebola to a taxi in the Liberian capital of Monrovia.
But the media frenzy that started when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the case on 30 September shows no signs of abating. CDC has been holding daily press conferences. Politicians have called for U.S. borders to be closed and attacked President Barack Obama for not doing enough. And news channels have been vying for superlatives to describe the deadly disease; experts on CNN recently opined on the question of whether Ebola is “the ISIS of biological agents.”
Liberia has become synonymous with out-of-control Ebola and all the horrors that follow. But Liberia is a fairly large country, nearly the size of Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium combined. Adam Bjork, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, spent the last 2 weeks in the southeastern corner of the country, which has seen relatively few Ebola cases. He spoke with ScienceInsider on 6 October as he waited for his flight home at the airport in Monrovia, the country’s Ebola-ravaged capital.
Bjork had an unusually optimistic assessment about the opportunities to curb the epidemic in remote River Gee County, home to some 70,000 of Liberia’s 4.3 million inhabitants. But he also had a most frightening story about a sick family, traveling from place to place in a taxi in a desperate search for care, who inadvertently spread the virus.
CDC sent Bjork to Fish Town, the capital of River Gee County, a 3-day drive from Monrovia this rainy time of year, to assess the situation. He arrived on 15 September, one of three CDC employees sent to the southeast to “be eyes and ears on the ground and give our bosses in Monrovia a sense of what’s going on.”
Health workers in Fish Town told Bjork about a woman who died on 2 August in River Gee, presumably the county's first Ebola case. Before arriving in River Gee, she had been in Monrovia and in Grand Kru County, which borders River Gee, where she saw a pharmacist.
The world needed an Ebola vaccine months ago to stop the epidemic that has exploded in West Africa—but none existed. Now, the race is on to develop vaccines in a matter of months, instead of the years it typically takes. But even if one of the current candidates works, many questions remain. How fast can companies make millions of vaccine doses? When should they start production? And who will foot the multimillion-dollar bill?
At the end of a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, last week to discuss Ebola vaccines, several participants were convinced that mass production of experimental products should begin in parallel with studies that aim to determine whether they actually work. “I’d pull out all the stops,” says Ira Longini, a statistician at the University of Florida at Gainesville who attended the meeting. “I’d try to make 30 to 40 million doses to cover at risk West African populations."
Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease researcher and head of the Wellcome Trust in London—which has provided funding for Ebola vaccine testing—agrees. “We may come to regret that we have to throw those vaccines away if they prove not to be effective,” Farrar says, “but I think that is a risk we have to take.”