5 most promising innovations for Ebola response

The redesigned personal protective equipment for health workers by Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design and Jhpiego.

There’s encouraging news coming from West Africa: The number of reported new cases of Ebola is declining, prompting governments in the most-affected countries to reopen schools.

But as Médecins Sans Frontières noted earlier this week, “a loss of vigilance now would jeopardize the progress made in stemming the epidemic.” New research suggests the virus is mutating.

Meanwhile, the international response to the health crisis engulfing Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone continues, Here are the five promising ways to treat those affected by the current outbreak and prevent a similar one in the future.

cAd3-ZEBOV vaccine

Developed jointly by GlaxoSmithKline and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the vaccine is one of two being tested in humans; the other is rVSV-ZEBOV, a product of the collaboration between NewLink Genetics, Merck Vaccines USA and Health Canada.

Based on results from the first phase of the cAd3-ZEBOV trial, the vaccine is safe for people to use though it’s unclear whether it can prompt immune response strong enough to protect those who receive it.

"That's why trials in West Africa of this, and the other vaccines in development, must begin as soon possible," Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, told Reuters.

As per the timetable provided to Devex, the World Health Organization hopes to see the second phase of the trial for both vaccines begin in February in five African countries and the third phase shortly thereafter: between February and March in Guinea, Feb. 26 in Liberia, and March in Sierra Leone. But these are tentative dates, according to WHO Senior Information Manager Daniela Bagozzi, who noted that “as these countries are very weakened and logistically difficult to navigate, dates can be moving targets.”

Reimagined health worker PPE

The Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design and Jhpiego have developed their version of the personal protective equipment that is expected to reduce the amount of time needed to remove the suit, thus decreasing the risk of infection. Cooling features make it easier to wear the protective gear for longer periods of time and visibility is improved than in many suits currently being used in West Africa.

Compared to a typical Ebola protective suit which requires more than 20 protocols to disrobe, the reimagined PPE can be removed in a minute, its makers claim.

The suit is one of the first three winning innovations under the U.S. government’s “Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development,” which drew some 1,500 entries. More grant award nominees will be announced in the coming weeks, according to Wendy Taylor, director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Right now, the suit’s architects are working to find and partner with a manufacturer to roll out the product. The suit is going to go through testing in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Everything is getting worked on a very, very fast timetable and so we're pushing that forward and providing as much support as we can,” Taylor said.

She added: “All the timetables are still being worked out. We hope to see the initial changes in a matter of a few months.”

Zylast antiseptic

Another winner in the Fighting Ebola grand challenge, this product from Aquarius GEP and Innovative BioDefense provides protection from germs for six hours. A typical sanitizer only offers protection for about 15 minutes.

The antiseptic, thus, has the potential to shield health care workers from accidentally contracting the Ebola virus.

According to Taylor, additional testing is needed to determine the efficacy of the product.

SPR barrier technology

Taylor called this innovation a potential game-changer. The long-lasting, spray-on barrier from SPR Advanced Technologies Inc. — the third of the first batch of winners in the Fighting Ebola grand challenge — creates electro-static fields to kill and repel microbes on surfaces, including those used to treat infected people such as hospital beds, table surfaces and even mobile phones.

One idea is to use this on medical PPE materials like the ones that may be used with the reimagined protective suit. The technology could keep the suit cooler.

“It's a solution we're looking at for future outbreaks,” Taylor said. “We're excited about continuing its development.”

Rapid, point-of-care Ebola diagnostic test

The University of Stirling, Robert Koch Institute, German Primate Center and Twist Dx have partnered to develop a 15-minute portable diagnostics test for use in Ebola treatment centers. This is six times faster than the usual method to detect Ebola infection.

The solar-powered mobile suitcase laboratory is meant for areas in low-resource settings. It is undergoing trial in Guinea.

The project is funded through the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises, an emergency research program to combat Ebola which is backed by the U.K. Department for International Development and Wellcome Trust and managed by the Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance. So far, R2HC has announced five other projects and will soon announce some more for funding.

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About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.