Foresight helped make Canada a world leader in Ebola research

September 10, 2014

The worst Ebola outbreak ever seen has struck a number of West African countries and infected thousands -- citizens, aid workers and health care personnel. Thousands have died. Although several solutions are in various stages of testing, no Ebola treatment or vaccine has yet been officially approved for human use.

There is hope as the medical community turns to experimental therapies, some of which were developed with support from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear (CBRN) Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI). The CRTI was a federal program led by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), which has now been integrated as part of the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), also led by DRDC in partnership with Public Safety Canada.

Canadian scientists have developed antibodies that show great promise in treating Ebola.

Canadian scientists have developed antibodies that show great promise in treating Ebola. Two of the three antibodies found in the experimental treatment ZMapp were initially developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) through CRTI funding. This is the experimental treatment that was administered to two American aid workers who contracted Ebola in West Africa.

Canada is also behind VSV-EBOV, an Ebola vaccine. In 2005, the DRDC-led CRTI provided PHAC with funding to support the creation of a manufacturing process that would make it possible to produce a pharmaceutical grade version of the vaccine for use in clinical trials. This effort was an important catalyst in building the stockpile that the Government of Canada is donating to the World Health Organization (WHO) for use in the current West African outbreak.

“It’s this kind of foresight that has made Canada a world leader in Ebola research.”

— Dr. Gary Kobinger, Chief, Special Pathogens, Public Health Agency of Canada

“The support of the CRTI was invaluable to us; they recognized a need and funded the initial research that made ZMapp and the VSV-EBOV vaccine possible,” said Dr. Gary Kobinger, Chief, Special Pathogens, Public Health Agency of Canada. “It’s this kind of foresight that has made Canada a world leader in Ebola research,” added Kobinger. “Canadians can be very proud of our nation’s contributions to helping the world fight against such a devastating disease”.  

“This is a prime example of how working together, Canada’s science and technology community within government has been able to deliver something of great significance to world health and safety,” said Dr. Marc Fortin, Chief Executive Officer, DRDC, and Assistant Deputy Minister (science and technology), Department of National Defence.

Foresight and Action

Following the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, governments around the world gathered their best experts to develop innovative strategies to protect their citizens and institutions against new and emerging threats.

The Government of Canada introduced a number of public safety and anti-terrorism initiatives, including the creation of the CRTI, an interdepartmental initiative led by Defence Research and Development Canada, working in partnership between 15 science-based federal departments and agencies and security-based departments. This initiative was tasked with seeking out science and technology (S&T) solutions to help defeat CBRN threats. This included investigating medical countermeasures against threats such as Ebola. 

However, developing vaccines and antibody treatments for diseases like Ebola, which generally only affect a small percentage of the world population, poses many challenges. On the one hand, the potential impacts are staggering if such a disease is used as a weapon or an outbreak spreads beyond a smaller, contained population.  On the other hand, these scenarios are highly unlikely and the cost of bringing medical countermeasure to market is very high. This means the likelihood of return on investment is poor, which can generally make research in such areas less appealing to Industry.

Given the direction from government in the wake of 9/11, the DRDC-led program quickly made it a funding priority, mobilizing the expertise and resources of the federal science and technology community to develop solutions against this disease.

Since that time, the CRTI and its successor program, CSSP, have invested approximately $7 million over 11 years to support the Public Health Agency of Canada and its partners in developing solutions to the Ebola threat.

These programs foster unique partnerships that bring together Canada’s best scientific minds to work on important public safety and security issues like Ebola. As the current outbreak rages, the life-changing impact of decisions first made in Canada more than a decade ago highlights how these programs have made, and can continue to make, invaluable contributions that help protect Canadians and the world.

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