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Scientists warn Ebola virus is mutating

Published on 29/01/15 at 12:57pm
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Researchers in France studying the Ebola epidemic say the virus has mutated making it potentially even more contagious.

Scientists based at the Institut Pasteur (IP) in Paris are using genetic sequencing to track variations in the genomics of the virus. So far hundreds of blood samples of Ebola patients in Guinea in West Africa have been analysed.

A comparable study was conducted in Sierra Leone last year by a different group of researchers that revealed the infection mutated significantly in the first three weeks of the outbreak.

“At the moment, not enough has been done in terms of the evolution of the virus both geographically and in the human body, so we have to learn more. But something has shown that there are mutations,” Noel Tordo, a virologist at the IP told the BBC.

Scientists are attempting to find out if it is possible for the contagious germ to jump more effortlessly from subject to subject. It is hopeful that the investigation will give more of an understating as to why only some people survive Ebola.

Dr Anavaj Sakuntabhai, who is a human geneticist at IP, says: “We know the virus is changing quite a lot, and that's important for diagnosing new cases and for treatment. We need to know how the virus is changing to keep up with our enemy.”

Sakuntabhai adds: “We've now seen several cases that don't have any symptoms at all, asymptomatic cases. These people may be the people who can spread the virus better, but we still don't know that yet. A virus can change itself to less deadly, but more contagious and that's something we are afraid of.”

At the IP where the outbreak was originally identified back in March – scientists are presently developing two vaccines to fight the virus. So far no drugs have been approved by any health authorities despite several pharma firms seeing their trials being fast-tracked.

Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline have both developed potential Ebola vaccine candidates, and GSK last week announced that a cargo of 300 vials is being sent to Liberia to be used in the first-ever large-scale Phase III clinical trial.

The British company is working with the World Health Organization (WHO), Wellcome Trust and the US National Institutes of Health to compare the candidate to a control vaccine. GSK says that the study is due to start ‘very shortly.’

Despite a £6 billion government pledge, commitments made by the global vaccines alliance Gavi, and the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative, the survival rate of the current outbreak is still only around 40 per cent.

According to WHO figures the epidemic has seen more than 22,000 cases reported since it started in Guinea a year ago, and 8,795 people have died.

Professor James Di Santo, who is an immunologist at the IP, concludes: “We've seen now this is a threat that can be quite large and can extend on a global scale. We've learned this virus is not a problem of Africa, it's a problem for everyone.”

Tom Robinson

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