Obama urges investment in Ebola response, vaccines

President Obama heads to Bethesda on Tuesday to urge funding for Ebola response, vaccines.

After touring a National Institutes of Health lab where scientists are developing a leading Ebola vaccine candidate Tuesday afternoon, President Barack Obama called on Congress to approve $6 billion in spending on relief efforts in Africa and research in the United States.

"The fight is not even close to being over," Obama told NIH staff, acknowledging that fears of the deadly virus have waned in the United States. "As long as the disease continues to rage in West Africa, we could continue to see isolated cases here in America."

With world health leaders saying they have made progress fighting Ebola in Africa and a looming budget showdown in Washington, renewing resolve to stop the spread of the virus could prove challenging.

But Obama's visit highlighted progress made at the NIH toward stemming the outbreak with a vaccine. Researchers there published preliminary results showing that the vaccine is safe in human subjects, and further trials to evaluate its safety and effectiveness are underway in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said the emergency funding Obama is seeking could help state health departments and hospitals cover costs they have incurred in responding to the Ebola outbreak, including efforts to monitor travelers from West Africa and to ready protective equipment to be used by those who treat suspected or confirmed Ebola patients.

But Sharfstein said the most important step is stopping the outbreak in Africa. "If it spreads further, it gets more and more difficult to control."

Obama is asking Congress to approve $6.18 billion in emergency funding, including $1.5 million in contingency funds that could go toward manufacturing and distribution of a vaccine, a senior administration official said. Other money would go toward relief efforts overseas. Obama said U.S. leadership in the response helped draw $2 billion in resources there.

"American leadership matters every time," Obama said. "We set the tone and we set the agenda."

It has been more than two weeks since an Ebola patient was brought to the U.S. and seven weeks since a diagnosis was made within the nation's borders. And there are signs the effort to slow the virus' spread in Africa are working.

United Nations and World Health Organization officials said Monday that though they do not have enough isolation beds for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, the spread of the outbreak has been slowed. In Guinea and Liberia, the two other nations battling the virus, health officials have met U.N. targets of burying 70 percent of Ebola victims safely and isolating and treating 70 percent of Ebola patients.

"The global response to the Ebola crisis has succeeded in turning the crisis around," said Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission.

But there are fears that the commitment to supporting the recovery in Africa might wane.

"I think there is less understanding of the need to stay in it for the long run and to build the capacity of countries to ensure this doesn't happen in the future," said Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, an alliance of U.S. nongovernmental aid groups.

Concern over the virus' spread has fueled unprecedented investment in Ebola vaccines and treatments, which were once worth little to drug companies because the disease typically appeared in small, isolated outbreaks. With more than 5,000 deaths in the epidemic that began nearly a year ago, this outbreak is larger than all previous outbreaks combined.

Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and the drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline developed a vaccine that uses a chimpanzee cold virus modified with Ebola proteins to provoke an immune response to the deadly virus. Results from a pilot study conducted at the NIH in September were published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week showing that the vaccine is safe in human subjects.

The institute's director, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, and Nancy Sullivan, chief of its biodefense research section, led Obama on a tour Tuesday of the labs in which the vaccine was developed. Researchers there continue to evaluate samples from human subjects to learn more about the immune response the vaccine generates.

A trial to further study the vaccine's safety and effectiveness started last month at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Other trials are under way or imminent in Atlanta, Britain, Switzerland and Mali. The Mali trial is being run by an affiliate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The vaccine is one of many in development and testing. Human trials of a vaccine being developed by Merck and NewLink Genetics Corp. are underway in Maryland at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at NIH.

Obama also touted progress in preparing for the possibility that Ebola could re-emerge in the United States.

Federal health officials said Tuesday that 35 hospitals across the country are ready to care for Ebola patients, including the two Baltimore hospitals that Maryland's health department designated in October — the University of Maryland Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Staff members at the hospitals have been trained in the use of the personal protective equipment they would wear while treating Ebola patients, as well as other infection-control practices to prevent the spread of the virus, administration officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised them on how to evaluate travelers returning from West Africa for Ebola risk, and on how to properly handle and dispose of waste generated during the care of suspected or confirmed Ebola patients, officials said.

The nation's ability to test for Ebola also has grown. In August, Maryland was one of 13 states capable of testing blood samples for the virus; that number now has reached 42, administration officials said.

Health officials across the country are monitoring, and in some cases quarantining travelers from the three Ebola-stricken countries. Maryland health officials said they are monitoring about 120 travelers and have tracked about 450 over the past few months.

But those costs have grown recently, as health officials have required travelers from Mali, a neighbor of the three Ebola-stricken countries, to be monitored for signs of Ebola, Sharfstein said.

"We got some new guidance, and it's probably not the last," Sharfstein said. "We continue to meet regularly in Maryland to assess what we know and if we need to decide to make changes."

Reuters contributed to this article.

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