Health and Medicine

UNC-Chapel Hill researchers fight against current Ebola outbreak

Carolina researchers are providing on-the-ground care to Ebola patients, monitoring Ebola survivors from the 2014 outbreak to learn more about the virus and testing an experimental drug for emergency treatment of patients infected with Ebola.

A person works in a research lab.

Research conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is aiding the fight against the deadly Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has been declared “largely contained” by the World Health Organization. Carolina researchers are providing on-the-ground care to Ebola patients, continuing to monitor Ebola survivors from the 2014 outbreak to learn more about the virus, and tested the experimental drug remdesivir that has been provided to the government of Congo for emergency treatment of patients infected with Ebola.

Ebola virus’ fatality rate for humans is around 50 percent. The world’s population is now highly mobile and the threat of diseases like Ebola quickly spreading across the globe is a major public health concern. A better understanding of emerging viruses and effective new antiviral drugs are both urgently needed to rapidly respond to Ebola outbreaks and other emerging pandemic threats.

Drs. William Fischer II and David Wohl of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine have been studying Ebola survivors in Liberia since 2014, establishing a cohort to learn more about treatment of acute infection, lingering clinical complications and viral persistence. Fischer is also the co-lead and Wohl is an investigator for an ongoing National Institutes of Health-funded study of remdesivir, a new experimental antiviral drug, in men who have evidence of Ebola virus in their semen.

Additionally, Carolina researchers were involved in testing remdesivir. Remdesivir is an investigative new drug created by Gilead Sciences Inc. and tested in the lab of Ralph Baric, professor of epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill. It is thought to work by blocking a key enzyme that viruses need for replication. As part of a clinical development program, remdesivir has been given to more than 100 people to date.

Baric is a world-renowned coronavirus expert who has pioneered rapid response approaches for the study of emerging viruses and the development of therapeutics. Baric’s team provided its vast biological knowledge and specialized state-of-the-art Biosafety Level 3 laboratories required for testing remdesivir against highly pathogenic emerging coronaviruses, which Gilead needed to prepare this drug for clinical trial. Baric and his team discovered that remdesivir works in the lab against severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome  and all coronaviruses they have tested against to date.

“Our collaboration with Gilead represents a new paradigm for developing robust rapid response solutions to control newly emerging diseases, like Ebola, MERS and other highly pathogenic viruses,” said Baric.

Remdesivir has not been proven safe or effective and is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration or any other regulatory body worldwide for commercial use. The FDA has approved it for compassionate use – treatment of seriously ill patients when no approved treatments are available. In May 2018, remdesivir was cleared by the health ministry of the Democratic Republic of Congo for use during the current Ebola outbreak in the country and Gilead provided 360 doses of the drug.

Carolina physicians have also provided on-the-ground patient care during Ebola outbreaks. Fischer has been involved in the response to each Ebola outbreak since 2014 and has been in Congo since mid-May, providing direct care to Ebola patients.