Ebola epidemic of 2014

NSF’s aggressive response to the global challenge and security threat of a raging Ebola epidemic

Credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith, Wikimedia Commons

Four years ago this month, officials in the West African nation of Guinea reported the outbreak of a mysterious, deadly disease that caused heavy bleeding and that one local doctor described as striking like lightning. The disease was later diagnosed as Ebola, a deadly zoonotic illness normally found in bats. It manifests as a high fever, hardly distinguishable from influenza or malaria, progresses to hemorrhagic fever and rapidly leads to death. Once in humans, the disease can spread quickly, leading to an epidemic.

The first outbreak occurred in 1976 in the village of Yambuku in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Scientists identified a virus as the cause and named it after the Ebola River, a tributary of the Congo River, 60 miles from Yambuku.

Before the 2014 epidemic, there had been five major outbreaks, all in remote, rural areas, which made controlling their spread easier. The worst of those was the 2000 Uganda outbreak, which affected 425 people, killing 224. Officials, however, were able to confine the epidemic to three out of Uganda’s 121 districts.

From contained outbreak to global epidemic

In contrast, 2014 was the first time the deadly epidemic occurred in West Africa, and it spread from Guinea to 10 countries around the world, including the U.S. It dwarfed previous outbreaks in magnitude, affecting 26,616 victims and killing 11,310, including one person in the U.S. The outbreak was on the verge of becoming a global pandemic. The uncertainty, helplessness and general panic it caused illustrated the threat to national security posed by disease outbreaks, and showed what a bioterrorism attack might look like.

Credit: Athalia Christie

It was in the light of this global emergency and looming security threat that NSF Director France Córdova invited scientists to apply for NSF support through the agency’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism to conduct non-clinical research aimed at better understanding and addressing the challenge. RAPID funds studies designed to gain scientific knowledge during disasters and severe emergencies — insights that cannot be readily discerned through hindsight. Research funded through RAPID and other NSF grants led to an assessment of needs during the epidemic; development of fast and efficient point-of-care detection of Ebola virus in infected but symptomless victims; molecular methods of tracking and hence controlling the epidemic; and the development of novel, versatile platforms for the manufacture of biopharmaceuticals that can treat Ebola and other deadly infections.