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Defense Department sets up Ebola task force

Aug. 7, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Members of Women in Peace Building Network (WIPNET) pray on Wednesday on a field not far from Liberia's president residency, in Monrovia, to drive away Ebola from Liberia. (ZOOM DOSSO/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Defense Department is closely watching the Ebola epidemic, establishing a small internal task force to evaluate ways to support international efforts to stop the outbreak, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said Tuesday.

Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said DoD already is helping in Liberia, with a small number of military and civilian public health officials from U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, providing support.

“Clearly, we’re watching this as closely as everybody else is and it’s an interagency effort here in the United States,” Kirby said. “It’s not just the Pentagon, it’s CDC, USAID, it’s State Department. We’re all talking about this and working on this.”

USAMRIID officials said Thursday the institute has been rotating personnel to Liberia since April and currently has two workers at the Liberian Institute of Biological Research Hospital conducting diagnostic testing and training staff.

USAMRIID personnel also rotated to a hospital in Sierra Leone from mid-March until July 25, establishing a diagnostic laboratory at the Kenema Government Hospital but it no longer has any personnel in that country, USAMRIID spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost said.

Since March, Ebola has sickened 1,711 people and killed 932 — a third of the total deaths from the virus since it was discovered in 1976. In addition to Sierra Leone, affected countries include Guinea and Liberia, with suspected cases and deaths in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

Filoviruses like Ebola and Marburg have drawn interest from the Pentagon since the late 1970s, mainly because troops deploy to areas where these diseases are endemic, and their high mortality rates — up to 90 percent of those affected, although the current outbreak’s rates are between 55 percent and 74 percent — coupled with their stable nature in aerosol make them attractive as potential biological weapons.

The experimental ZMAPP treatment administered to two infected Americans now being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta was developed by MAPP Pharmaceuticals of San Diego in partnership with a subsidiary of Reynolds American, Kentucky Bioprocessing, under a contract with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the Health and Human Services Department.

Last year, USAMRIID scientists used a treatment, MB-003, on primates infected with Ebola after they became symptomatic; the treatment fully protected the animals when given one hour after exposure and protected a significant number of the animals when administered later.

And another treatment, TKM-Ebola, made by Canadian company Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, was fast-tracked in March for development by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The product was developed under a $140 million contract with DoD.

In a hearing before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Aug. 7, however, the Centers for Disease Control’s Dr. Thomas Frieden said all treatments are experimental and are no substitute for current accepted protocols, which include prevention and palliative care.

“The plain fact is we don’t know whether that treatment is helpful or harmful or have any impact. ... We do know that supportive care makes a difference,” Frieden said.

The World Health Organization held emergency meetings Aug. 6 and 7 to determine whether to declare the situation a public health emergency.

According to Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Laurie Garrett, such a declaration would activate an international response to the epidemic, including development of a strategic plan.

“There’s a myth out there that there’s a great WHO office in Geneva stocked full of specialized response equipment, with skilled, talented health care workers who have their own special jet and go swooping into epidemics. This is ludicrous,” Garrett said in a conference call with reporters.

The CDC is sending about 50 additional personnel to the affected area in the coming weeks, according to Frieden.

Garrett said the government response has been too slow.

“It says a lot that organizations handling this on the front lines are all volunteers,” she said.

Representatives of relief agencies pleaded with Congress on Thursday to galvanize the U.S. response, calling the international reaction to the epidemic a “failure.”

“I don’t think the international impact of Ebola has been realized,” said Ken Isaac, Samaritan’s Purse vice president of programs and government relations. “There are bodies laying in the streets. There are gangs threatening to burn hospitals. I believe it has the potential to be a national security issue for many countries, including the U.S.”

Michael D. Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, is leading the Pentagon’s Ebola task force.

Kirby said there has been no impact on U.S. Africa Command’s operations.

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