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EU-funded study into virus mutations marks breakthrough in fight against Ebola

Brussels, 18 June 2015

A major contribution to eradicating Ebola has been made by the EU-funded EVIDENT project. It has confirmed that the Ebola virus has mutated at a lower rate than feared during the recent outbreak in West Africa. This means that the new diagnostic methods, treatments and vaccines under development should still be effective in the fight to eradicate the disease.

Working with a budget of €1.7 million from the EU's research funding programme Horizon 2020, the EVIDENT project mapped the genetic evolution of the Ebola virus. Its results were published on 17 June 2015 in Nature.

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: "In the fight against infectious diseases, we have to know our enemy. Effective treatments can only be designed if we know exactly how the Ebola virus mutates. Thanks to EU research funding, the breakthrough study by the EVIDENT project has made a huge step towards eradicating the deadly impact of Ebola. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa showed the entire world that we need to invest more resources into research to fight epidemics."

EVIDENT was one of the projects selected under an emergency procedure launched by the European Commission in 2014 to support urgent Ebola research with Horizon 2020 funding (IP/14/1194). Another of these projects, REACTION, announced a breakthrough discovery in February 2015 that the antiviral drug favipiravir may be an effective treatment against early Ebola disease.

The EVIDENT project is the research part of the EU-funded European Mobile Laboratory (EMLab), which was the first rapid response diagnostics unit deployed to the outbreak epicentre in Guinea. Analysis of almost 180 patient samples with the Ebola virus from throughout the outbreak zone in Guinea confirmed that the virus was introduced into the human population in December 2013 at a single source. Its spread was almost completely halted in April 2014, but then picked up speed again in May 2014 due to a single unsafe burial. This analysis can help increase the effectiveness of measures put in place to stop the virus from spreading.

In the work, made possible thanks to a close collaboration with the Guinean national authorities and researchers, EVIDENT scientists showed that the virus mutates at a lower rate than previously described, and managed to pinpoint only a few mutations which need further assessment to investigate if they would render vaccines and treatments under development ineffective.

Professor Stephan Günther, the EVIDENT and EMLab co-ordinator from the Bernard Nocht Institute, Germany, and Professor Miles Carroll, the study lead and Head of Research at Public Health England at Porton Down, said: "It is a relief to see that the genetic changes of the virus should not alter the effectiveness of the new vaccines and antibody based treatments. The EVIDENT team will continue to study and monitor the genetic changes within the Ebola virus, so we can spot if and when potentially dangerous changes occur."

Background

The Ebola virus has claimed the lives of over 11 000 people since March 2014 in West Africa and concerns have been raised that the virus might be adapting to humans and become more easily transmissible. Additionally, rapid genetic changes of the virus could mean new Ebola vaccines, therapies and diagnostics will be ineffective against the modified forms of the pathogen.

EVIDENT was launched on 1 November 2014 with the main purpose of scientifically investigating specimens from Ebola patients collected as part of the outbreak response in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and gathering critical knowledge on the virus and its transmission. It is part of the European Commission's emergency research response to the Ebola outbreak that has in total mobilised almost €140 million and leveraged an additional €100 million of in-kind contributions from the European pharmaceutical industry.

EMLab is a four-year project aiming to increase the capacity in Europe and Africa to respond to infectious disease outbreaks and to strengthen the collaboration between scientists on both continents. The Commission's Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development had set up this mobile lab infrastructure already before the Ebola outbreak as part of the EU's response strategy to unexpected outbreaks such as this.

Both EVIDENT and EMLab projects are coordinated by Professor Stephan Günther from the Bernard Nocht Institute, Germany. The EVIDENT project brought together a team of experts from eleven institutions in France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.

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