What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Despite outbreak, Ebola treatment and vaccine represent ‘resounding scientific success’

Recently, the FDA formally approved the first vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus. The advance comes at a crucial time, as Democratic Republic of Congo is suffering an outbreak that has lasted over a year and a half and sickened more than 3,000. But the death toll would be much higher without the unprecedented rate of medical progress in treatment. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally approved the first vaccine to prevent Ebola.

    It comes at a crucial time. An outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has infected more than 3,000 people since early last year. And yet the situation could be much worse.

    What has prevented it from spiraling out of control is five years of remarkable scientific progress.

    With the second of our series, again in partnership with the Global Health Reporting Center, here's special correspondent Monica Villamizar.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Ever since Ebola was first discovered in 1976, it's been mysterious, terrifyingly deadly.

    Peter Piot, a Belgian doctor, was part of an international team that was called to Yambuku, in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  • Peter Piot:

    And what we found was that there were very few survivors, and that, indeed, the what we call case fatality rate was over 90 percent.

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe (through translator):

    The patients fled the hospital.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Jean-Jacques Muyembe, then a young doctor and now the DRC's head of Ebola response, was also part of that first investigation.

    Flash-forward to 1995. Muyembe had to contain Ebola in Kikwit, a city of almost 400,000. To stop the spread, traditional funeral rituals had to be discarded.

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe (through translator):

    We didn't have coffins. We'd put them in trucks. We'd dig a hole and throw them in. That shocked people.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    In 2014 came the worst Ebola outbreak in history.

  • Man:

    A big outbreak of a deadly Ebola virus.

  • Man:

    Started in the West African country of Guinea, has now spread.

  • Woman:

    Our people know nothing. There is no cure.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Without a preventive vaccine or a treatment, the virus spread across six West African countries, even jumping to Europe and the U.S.

    Soka Moses, a physician in Liberia, recalls the sense of desperation.

  • Soka Moses:

    The patients are vomiting, bleeding. Meanwhile, there were still patients waiting outside the gate. They are begging to come in.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    In the end, Ebola infected over 28,000 people globally. More than 11,000 died.

    But that catastrophe also spawned a wave of scientific collaboration and discovery. Today, as doctors struggle to contain the outbreak in DRC, they are using an unprecedented set of tools, from genomic sequencing to rapid on-spot diagnostic tests, from wildlife biosurveillance to see-through plastic treatment bubbles specially designed to help prevent the spread of the disease.

    But the most dramatic change by far is a stunning development. Ebola is now both preventable and curable.

  • Peter Piot:

    The last five years, scientific developments get an A-plus, no doubt about that.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Before heading to the outbreak zone, I went to the National Institutes of Health, where I enrolled in a clinical study to receive this experimental shot, an Ebola vaccine.

    Not long ago, this would have been impossible. There was no vaccine against Ebola. But in little over five years, two vaccines and two drugs have been developed. For no other disease has a treatment and a vaccine appeared in such a short period of time.

    In the hunt for an elusive treatment, Muyembe's work, starting in Kikwit in 1995, was critical.

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe (through translator):

    We performed a blood transfusion from an Ebola survivor to eight patients with acute Ebola. Out of those eight, seven survived.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    That original survivor, who lost 15 members of his family, donated his blood to Muyembe's team, and, in 2006, gave samples to the NIH researchers.

    Those samples led to the creation of a treatment called a monoclonal antibody, its name right out of a spy novel, mAb114.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    You get infected with any kind of a virus or a bacteria, your body starts to make proteins that are called antibodies that ultimately suppress the pathogen.

    We have been able to create antibodies that are very, very specific.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The treatment is based on the original disease-fighting cells from a patient, purified and modified to fight even more efficiently against the virus.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    And what it does, it blocks the ability of the Ebola virus to attack its target cells.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Four drugs were tested in the middle of the current outbreak. The trial was called off in August, when it became clear that two of these treatments were saving lives.

    The others didn't make an impact. In prior outbreaks, about two-thirds of the patients died. With mAb114, it was just 34 percent. A different drug, from Regeneron, brought the death rate down to 29 percent.

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe:

    I was at the origin of the discovery of the virus. I have — also the development of a molecule that can treat Ebola patients.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The treatment was a breakthrough.

    But with a third of the patients still dying, the vaccine was critical, a way to protect millions from being infected in the first place. The vaccine was born in a post-9/11 world. Research targeted viruses, like Ebola, that could be used in bioterrorist attacks.

    Early research was led by Canada's Health Agency. But when Ebola erupted in West Africa, the vaccine wasn't ready. The World Health Organization and government officials called on pharmaceutical maker Merck.

    Kenneth Frazier is the CEO.

  • Kenneth C. Frazier:

    It wasn't the typical situation, where you are developing a vaccine from scratch. A lot of scientific work had gone on for a number of years.

    And we were asked to come in and finish the research and the development and the formulation and the manufacturing.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The Merck vaccine was first tested at the very end of the West African outbreak. It was over 90 percent effective.

    In Eastern Congo, more than a quarter-million people have gotten the Merck shot. These people say they it made them feel safe.

  • Man (through translator):

    My wife's friend and son died of Ebola. They called me a high-risk contact because I took part in the funeral.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I saw people dying, and, as a nurse, I understood that I had to be vaccinated.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Every health worker on the front lines gets the protective shot, allowing for much better patient care. It's a game-changer.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    There is no doubt in anybody's mind that the outbreak would have been much, much worse and much, much more extensive had it not been for the use of the vaccine.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    A second vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson, is now being used in the border region between DRC and Rwanda. To help build trust, Jean-Jacques Muyembe got the shot himself.

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe:

    I am exposed to the disease. It is why I can receive this vaccine.

    Now we have the vaccine. We have treatment.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Do you think this is a happy story, where science won?

  • Jean-Jacques Muyembe:

    Yes, yes.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    I think the development of an effective vaccine and the development of sensitive, easy-to-use diagnostics is a resounding scientific success story.

  • Kenneth C. Frazier:

    I think the key to this was an unprecedented amount of partnership and collaboration, and it was the spirit of the people who were on the ground in those places where the disease was endemic. Those are the real heroes.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The crisis here is decidedly not over, but there is reason to hope.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Monica Villamizar in Kinshasa, DRC.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest