A significant portion of the funding for Canada’s path-breaking research into an experimental therapy and a vaccine for Ebola came from the research arm of the Department of National Defence, which has spent nearly $7-million since 2002 developing the drugs as part of a program designed to shield this country from security threats.
Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) has funded five Ebola-related projects at the National Microbiology Labratory (NML) in Winnipeg, three of which contributed to developing ZMapp, the experimental serum that received worldwide attention after it was given to a pair of Ebola-infected American aid workers who have since recovered.
The other two DND-funded projects were instrumental in developing an experimental vaccine, known as VSV-EBOV, that Ottawa has offered to donate to the World Health Organization for distribution in West Africa, where the worst Ebola outbreak on record has killed at least 1,427 people.
The Winnipeg lab’s contribution to the pharmacological battle against Ebola has come as a surprise to most Canadians, who may wonder why and how the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Prairie facility became involved in developing experimental drugs for a viral hemorhaggic fever that has never turned up in Canada.
The work has its roots in Canada’s decision to open its first – and only – biosafety level-4 containment lab in the late 1990s.
The NML’s bosses set out to hire staff experienced in handling the world’s deadliest pathogens, and one of their recruits was Heinz Feldmann, a German-born scientist with an interest in Ebola and its close relative, the Marburg virus.
“It [the Winnipeg research] started off as a counterterrorism measure, but it became obvious that it would be useful in a possible outbreak scenario in Canada or perhaps elsewhere,” said Frank Plummer, the recently retired former director of the NML. “Not so much for the general population as for health-care workers who might have been exposed.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax scare that followed, both the Canadian and U.S. governments became more willing to fund Ebola-related research as a check against a possible terror attack, according to experts in bioterrorism. The challenge has been in persuading drug makers to pick up where that basic science funding leaves off and pay for expensive clinical trials.
“When you have a disease like Ebola that only sporadically affects the poorest populations in the world, essentially, there’s not a lot of economic incentive for a company to get in and do that,” said Daniel Bausch, an associate professor in the Department of Tropical Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans who recently returned from stints fighting Ebola in Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Dr. Bausch pointed out that Ebola would not make a very efficient weapon. The disease is only transmitted through bodily fluids, meaning it is much less likely to spread than an airborne virus.
Still, Ebola could spread panic. “When you’re talking about bioterror, there’s the bio and there’s the terror,” said Peter Singer, the chief executive officer of Grand Challenges Canada, which funds projects to improve global health. “A disease with mortality of up to 90 per cent with blood coming out of your orifices is a disease that certainly can spread terror, regardless of the extent to which it can spread person to person.”
Such concerns led to a DRDC program called the Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear Research and Technology Initiative beginning in 2002 to fund its first Ebola-related research project, “to develop a novel approach for mitigation of Ebola virus using therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.”
The DRDC program doled out just over $2.6-million over five years to that first project, which would go on to produce two-thirds of the foundation for ZMapp, now licensed to the San Diego company Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc.
In total, the DRDC funding program – which merged with two other funding envelopes in 2012 to become the Canadian Safety and Security Program – committed $2,917,181 over all to the foundational work for ZMapp, according to figures provided by DRDC.
The same program contributed $3,944,638 to two projects that helped develop VSV-EBOV.
The Department of National Defence was not alone in funding the research, led by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The projects also received more than $9-million in “in-kind contributions” – mostly for the lab facilities and the salaries of the NML scientists conducting the work.
Summaries of the projects provided by DRDC also list a slew of partners, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and private pharmaceutical companies. “I would say three cheers for the Canadian researchers that developed [the treatment and vaccine] and for the government of Canada that funded them,” Dr. Singer said.