President Barack Obama headed to the National Institutes of Health outside Washington Tuesday to laud U.S. efforts to fight the Ebola virus, using the success of a small vaccine trial as a premise to say the U.S. and West Africa alike are better prepared to fight Ebola.
And he pushed hard for more funding.
Vaccine experts at the NIH’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases reported last week that the first evidence from their tests of an Ebola vaccine in human volunteers shows it’s safe and likely to protect people from infection.
It’s nothing unusual for vaccine development, but Obama’s asking Congress for more than $6 billion to fight Ebola, and he needs evidence that the money will produce results. Congress has until the middle of this month to approve a budget that would include the money.
"It's a good Christmas present to the American people and to the world," Obama said.
"The money's running out," he added. "We cannot beat Ebola without more funding. If we want other countries to step up, we are going to have to lead the way."
Obama argued that fighting Ebola is a bipartisan issue that shouldn't get bogged down in messy American politics. "It's a basic, commonsense issue that all Americans agree on," he said.
The White House issued a comprehensive round up of U.S. Ebola efforts. “We are supporting the development of five Ebola vaccine candidates in various stages of development,” it said in a statement.
“"The money's running out. We cannot beat Ebola without more funding."
“Two vaccine candidates … have been in Phase 1 human clinical trials; three others are still a few months away from the start of trials.” And West African governments working to try the vaccines in people there — where true life exposure to the virus will help show whether they actually do work.
“These trials are anticipated to begin in the near future,” the White House said.
NIH, the Department of Defense and the Health and Human Services Department’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) are helping to pay for production of tens of thousands of doses of the vaccines to test them. The hope is to have millions of doses ready by 2015.
Experts say vaccines will play only a small role in fighting Ebola, which has infected at least 16,000 people in the current outbreak and killed at least 6,000. More important is quickly isolating people so they don't infect others, and safely burying bodies.
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Federal agencies are also working with companies to speed development of drugs, including ZMapp, the antibody-based drug grown in tobacco plants. “Clinical studies are expected to start in early 2015 at NIAID. Other clinical studies are slated to begin in affected African countries in early 2015,” the White House said.
Other drugs ready to be tested in people included TKM-Ebola, BCX4430, brincidofovir and favipiravir. ZMapp and brincidofovir have been given to Ebola patients treated in the U.S.
Protective gear kits are also ready to be delivered anywhere in the U.S. within 24 hours, and now 42 labs can test patients for the Ebola virus within four to six hours, the White House said. And The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention certified 35 hospitals to treat Ebola patients.
"People are still dying horrible deaths in an outbreak that has already killed thousands."
The World Health Organization said on Monday that there was some progress against Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. But the charity group Doctors Without Borders contradicted this on Tuesday, saying efforts were still far too slow and criticizing rich countries for failing to act quickly enough.
“The international response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa has been slow and uneven leaving local people, national governments and non-governmental organizations to do most of the practical, hands-on work,” the group, known widely as Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF, said in a statement.
"People are still dying horrible deaths in an outbreak that has already killed thousands," said Dr. Joanne Liu, MSF international president. "We can't let our guard down and allow this to become double failure, a response that was slow to begin with and is ill-adapted in the end."
But Obama praised the U.S. contribution.
"Because we stepped up our efforts in recent months we are more prepared in terms of protectiing Americans here at home," he said.
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Obama said U.S. leadership was vital to encourage other countries to step up, too.
"If we are going to solve Ebola for ourselves we have to solve it in West Africa as well," Obama said.
Nearly 3,000 military personnel are in West Africa. “In the past month alone, the U.S. military has completed three Ebola treatment units in Liberia, and several more are slated to come online in December,” it added. “The U.S. military will construct a total of 10 Ebola treatment units and USAID-funded partners built an additional four; all are slated to be complete within the next several weeks.”
U.S. efforts have helped double the number of beds available to treat Ebola in Liberia, the White House said. WHO has said that in fact, there may be too many beds in urban parts of Liberia now. “As of December, there are approximately 800 beds available to Ebola patients in facilities built or supported by the United States, and we expect nearly 2,000 to be online by January 1,” the White House said.
And while military troops are not actively treating Ebola patients, they are training African civilians to do it. “As of November, we have the capacity to train 200 health care workers per week in Monrovia alone,” the White House said,
“Through the U.S. military, moreover, we have established mobile teams to train up to 100 health care workers per week outside of Monrovia. We had no such capacity prior to last month, and the U.S. military since last month has trained hundreds of such health care workers.”
And the Monrovia Medical Unit, set up to treat Ebola-infected health workers, has treated and released its first two patients, the White House noted.
Separately, New York’s health department said Tuesday that all 114 health care workers who cared for Dr. Craig Spencer are now cleared of any risk they caught Ebola from him. Spencer was released last month from Bellevue Hospital.