WHO convenes ‘urgent’ meeting over outbreak of Marburg virus


The World Health Organization (WHO) convened an urgent meeting Tuesday amid an outbreak in Africa of one of the deadliest diseases known to man.

The leading health body brought experts from around the world together to discuss how to ramp up the development of vaccines and therapeutics for Marburg Virus.

There are growing fears that the world could be caught off guard by the currently untreatable infection that kills up to 88 percent of the people it infects. 

The virus, considered a more dangerous cousin of Ebola, has killed nine people in Equatorial Guinea in the Central African nation’s first outbreak. More than a dozen others are believed to be infected.

The highly-infectious pathogen – which causes some sufferers to bleed from their eyes – has been touted as the next big pandemic threat, with the WHO describing it as ‘epidemic-prone’. 

Members of the Marburg virus vaccine consortium (MARVAC) said it could take months for effective vaccines and therapeutics to become available, as manufacturers would need to gather materials and perform trials.

They hope the virus – which spreads by prolonged physical contact – will be contained and controlled before it causes a larger outbreak. 

But the outbreak in Equatorial Guinea comes just months after Ghana reported its first outbreak, which marked only the second time the disease had been detected in West Africa.

‘Surveillance in the field has been intensified,’ George Ameh, WHO’s country representative in Equatorial Guinea, said during the meeting.

‘Contact tracing, as you know, is a cornerstone of the response. We have… redeployed the COVID-19 teams that were there for contact tracing and quickly retrofitted them to really help us out.’ 

Equatorial Guinea and the WHO confirmed the country’s first outbreak on Monday.

The virus was found in samples taken from deceased patients suffering from symptoms including fever, fatigue and blood-stained vomit and diarrhea.

Marburg cases are rare but extremely deadly. African fruit bats are natural harborers of the virus but they do not appear to fall ill when infected.

When Marburg spills into primates, including humans, it’s lethal.  

Annual global human figures are usually in the low single digits, but the virus kills between a quarter and 88 percent of the people it infects, depending on the strain and the treatment provided.

There are no vaccines or treatments approved to treat the virus — though supportive care like rehydration and drugs to ease certain symptoms can improve survival chances.

The MARVAC team identified 28 experimental vaccine candidates that could be effective against the virus – most of which were developed to combat Ebola. Five were highlighted in particular as vaccines to be explored. 

The shots were developed by non-profits such as the Sabin Vaccine Institute, the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, and Public Health Vaccines – along with pharma giants like Emergent Biosolutions and Janssen.

Trialing these vaccines may be impossible, though. Because viruses such as Marburg rarely result in high case figures, it may take multiple outbreaks for enough cases to properly analyze the virus’s effectiveness.