Co-Chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science & Technology co-authors Khan’s “terrific” Scientific paper on Ebola Virus Genes
Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, the late national hero of Sierra Leone’s war against Ebola virus, might be metaphorically smiling today as he lies in his grave. If Khan had been alive, yesterday August 28th would have been a day of immense pride for him as his scientific work on the Ebola virus was published with no less a co-author than the world renowned Professor Eric Lander.
|The multiple awards-winning Professor Lander, who is co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is also one of the most celebrated scholars in genomic studies. Currently, in addition to his role as science advisor to President Obama, Lander is also Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Professor of Biology at MIT and Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School|
“The scientific work described in the paper is indeed a true and deep collaboration between researchers in both of our countries. It is our honor to work with such talented, dedicated and indeed, heroic Sierra Leoneans,” the esteemed American professor wrote in correspondence seen by this newspaper. In it, Professor Lander expressed how proud he was of the late national hero of Sierra Leone, Dr. Sheik Umarr Khan and the four other Sierra Leoneans involved in preparing the scientific paper but who all died from Ebola before the paper could be now published.
A memoriam at the end of the publication states: “Tragically, five co-authors, who contributed greatly to public health and research efforts in Sierra Leone, contracted EVD in the course of their work and lost their battle with the disease before this manuscript could be published. We wish to honor their memory”. The paper then lists the five to be Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, Nurse Mbalu Fonnie, Nurse Alice Kovoma, Nurse Alex Moigboi and Laboratory Technician Mohamed Fullah.
The scientific paper itself, within a few hours of being published, received an extraordinary amount of positive reviews from top-notch scientists around the globe because of what scientists were describing as its “terrific” and “unprecedented” extensive genetic analysis of the Ebola virus responsible for the disease now ravaging through the Mano River Union.
An important aspect of the findings is that the Ebola Virus has been rapidly mutating; leading to fears that if the outbreak is not quickly ended, the virus might transform itself into an uncontrollable microbe for which developing laboratory diagnostics and vaccines might be virtually impossible.
It can be recalled that on August 1st 2014, the WHO Director General, Dr. Chan, had warned during an MRU Summit, of the possibility of the Ebola virus to mutate in order to improve its transmission modes.
The WHO has yesterday now warned that the Ebola virus has the potential to infect up to 20,000 humans before the outbreak ends. Therefore, if, as Dr. Khan, Professor Lander and team, have discovered, the Ebola virus continues to mutate as it spreads, the whole world needs to then focus all possible energies into ending the ongoing catastrophe.
Another of the authors was Dr. Pardis Sabeti of Harvard University. She spoke to American National Public Radio yesterday.
“The more time you give a virus to mutate and the more human-to-human transmission you see,” she says, “the more opportunities you give it to fall upon some [mutation] that could make it more easily transmissible or more pathogenic.”
Sabeti says she doesn’t know if that’s happening yet. But the rapid change in the virus’ genome could weaken the tools researchers have to detect Ebola or, potentially, to treat patients.
Diagnostic tests, experimental vaccines and drugs for Ebola — like the one recently used to treat two American patients — are all based on the gene sequences of the virus, Sabeti says. “If the virus is mutating away from the known sequence, that could be important to how these things work.”
According to the paper, the new genomic data also indicate that the outbreak started when just one person caught Ebola from an animal. Since then the virus has been spreading through human-to-human transmission — not through humans eating infected bush meat (wild game) as was first thought.
“We’re really concerned because a lot of the messaging going around … is, Don’t each bush meat; don’t eat mango; don’t eat anything that might be in contact with animals,” she says adding that the campaign messages were wrong and telling people “not to eat all the main sources of food” so the advice from health officials to avoid bush meat may be doing more harm than good.
Sabeti and the team also compared the Ebola genomes from Sierra Leone to those found in previous outbreaks in Central Africa. Their findings suggest the virus has been circulating around West Africa for about a decade. It can be recalled that an earlier paper of Khan had shown samples from as far back as October 2006 had tested positive for Ebola virus.
Mutation (either natural or man-made) might have however converted the earlier variant of the virus into the more virulent one seen in the current outbreak.
“This study is really an impressive tour de force,” says virologist Stephen Morse of Columbia University who says he is not surprised the virus is mutating so rapidly. He says: “We’ve seen this in a number of infections. Very often when a new virus is introduced into the human population very suddenly, it will show accelerated rates of evolution.”
Structural Biologist Erica Ollmann Saphire of The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California was also full of praises for the work done by Dr. Khan and others. She said “This paper is terrific,” adding it could help to inform the design of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
Noteworthy is that Reuters News Agency has specifically named pharmaceutical companies like TEKMIRA as going to be possibly impacted by findings in the scientific paper. It is however not known what is the reaction to the scientific paper of these pharmaceutical companies like SIRNA or their agents in-country.