Ebola Researchers Can't Get Samples

Demand for Ebola samples is high among scientists developing treatments, but fear of exposure is holding up transportation of samples. Continue reading →

Scientists at major research institutions are having trouble getting the samples of Ebola they need to develop treatment for the disease, Reuters reported.

"All the companies working on vaccines, diagnostics and treatments are complaining about lack of access to viral samples," Laurie Garrett, the senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told Reuters.

The holdup is largely due to the extreme caution being used to safely transport the samples, she said.

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But scientists need fresh samples, because the virus mutates.

"No one really knows right now what has the virus mutated to or if it has mutated," said microbiologist and infectious disease expert Dr. Charles Chiu of the University of California, San Francisco, who is working on a genetic test that could detect the virus before symptoms. Without that research, "we're not going to be able to determine in advance whether or not it has changed to a form where it might evade diagnostic assays or might render current vaccines or drugs ineffective."

Reuters contacted 10 scientists at eight major research institutions who said they were unable to get Ebola samples in recent months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the transportation issue has been challenging, but that it has reached an agreement to get samples from the three affected countries in West Africa. Still, it's unclear if the quantity will meet the demand.

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The problem has grown since the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States died.

"You can divide the outbreak into pre-Dallas and post-Dallas," Dr. John Schieffelin of Tulane, who has treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, told Reuters. "Everybody has safety as a very, very high priority, which is great. But sometimes the fear and hysteria trumps science."

The Ebola virus has so far stumped medical experts who, for nearly a decade, have attempted to formulate a vaccine. But the virus itself is far from omnipotent. At least 10 things destroy the virus, according to reports issued by the CDC, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, and others. Ebola-contaminated items are frequently incinerated following local regulations. Once burned to smithereens, previously contaminated items are relatively harmless, according to the CDC. A CDC report entitled "Ebola-Associated Waste Management" mentions that "Ebola-associated waste that has been appropriately incinerated, autoclaved (sterilized), or otherwise inactivated is not infectious, does not pose a health risk, and is not considered to be regulated medical waste or a hazardous material under Federal law."

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Just a 3 percent solution of acetic acid kills Ebola on contact, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. This organic acid is what gives vinegar its characteristic pungent taste. Canada prohibits the sale of vinegar containing over 12.3 percent acetic acid, and other countries have similar restrictions. Most vinegars should therefore kill Ebola, but percentages of actual acid content vary.

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Boiling the virus for five minutes kills it, the PHAC reports. This is not a good way to destroy Ebola, however, because some of the living virus could escape as water vapor before the liquid reaches a boiling point.

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Ebola is susceptible to "alcohol-based products," according to the PHAC. Most hand sanitizers contain alcohol. Ebola, however, can enter through tiny cracks in the skin before hand sanitizer, or other alcohol-based products, takes effect. "Ebola on dry surfaces, such as doorknobs and countertops, can survive for several hours," the CDC reports, helping to explain why caregivers are advised to fully cover their hands and arms when touching objects in a patient's room. Ebola has an even longer lifespan in bodily fluids, such as blood, outside of a patient. In such a form the CDC mentions that the virus "can survive up to several days at room temperature."

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Glutaraldehyde is an extremely pungent, oily liquid. A product containing 1-2 percent of it can kill the Ebola virus, according to both the PHAC and a fact sheet created by the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. Glutaraldehyde in small amounts is often found in wart removal products.

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Bleach that most of us have at home is powerful stuff when it comes to killing germs. A solution with just 5.25 percent bleach destroys Ebola, according to the World Health Organization, the PHAC and the CDC. Chlorine powder, commonly used to disinfect swimming pool water, kills Ebola too.

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How about a simmering soup of Ebola? No one wants that, but simmering Ebola for 30-60 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the PHAC, can inactivate and/or destroy the virus.

Ebola surprisingly appears to tolerate some amount of radiation, which is why contaminated items are not usually just zapped clean. Gamma irradiation plus a bit of glutaraldehyde kills Ebola, though, as does substantial UVC radiation, reports the PHAC. A virus-killing robot called "Little Moe" by the San Antonia-based company Xenex uses pulses of ultraviolet light to disinfect Ebola-contaminated surfaces in mere minutes.

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In an "Information to Travelers" alert, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control mentions, "Ebola virus is easily killed by soap." It goes on to advise that travelers should "wash hands regularly, using soap or antiseptics." The problem again is that Ebola and other viruses can enter through small skin cracks before an individual washes his or her hands. While soap can kill the virus on contact, hand washing with soap is not sufficient to prevent transmission.

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On a surface exposed to direct sunlight, the Ebola virus dries and dies, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. Epidemiologist Emily Landon of the University of Chicago agrees, and adds that, when isolated from its human or non-human animal host, Ebola is a relatively easy to kill pathogen.

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