(Bloomberg) -- The US will begin redirecting travelers from Uganda to five airports to screen for Ebola, as the East African country grapples with an outbreak of a strain of virus for which there is no approved vaccine.
The notice is not a travel ban or suspension on those coming from Uganda, but is being put in place out of an abundance of caution, according to a senior administration official who asked not to be named as the matter has not yet been made public. Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised Uganda’s travel alert level, urging travelers to avoid non-essential travel to the country.
US health officials believe the current level of risk is low for Ebola spreading in the US, but also plan to alert clinicians and hospitals to be on the lookout for possible cases. A call with thousands of US health-care providers is also planned for Oct. 11. The Biden administration is preparing for a surge in cases in Uganda, and believes the current reported number represents a significant undercount, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not be named discussing matters that aren’t public.
The first case in the outbreak caused by the Sudan virus, one of four pathogens known to cause Ebola virus disease in humans, was found in Uganda in September. Since then, Uganda has reported 63 confirmed and probable cases, with nearly half of the patients succumbing to the illness. The Zaire ebolavirus -- commonly referred to as Ebola virus -- caused more recent outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spurring rapid development and approval of a vaccine. The vaccine, called Ervebo, is made by Merck & Co.
However, that vaccine does not work against the Sudan version causing the outbreak in Uganda. Several shots targeting the strain are in various stages of development, and the World Health Organization said Wednesday that two of the vaccines could begin a human trial in Uganda as soon as this month. The proposed trials are undergoing ethics and regulatory approvals from the Ugandan government, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
One of the vaccines up for review in Uganda was developed by GSK Plc, which transferred its rights to the nonprofit Sabin Vaccine Institute in 2019. That same year, the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority awarded Sabin a $128 million contract to develop the product. It has shown promise in monkey studies, as well as smaller clinical trials at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Vaccine Research Center. There are currently only 100 doses of the vaccine available, but Sabin is working with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a public-private vaccine partnership, to find a fill-finish manufacturer to make more shots.
The other vaccine is a single-shot regimen developed at the University of Oxford that’s in some ways similar to the university’s Covid-19 vaccine manufactured with AstraZeneca Plc. Another vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson and Bavarian Nordic A/S was approved by the European Commission and given prequalification from the WHO; however, it’s unclear if the vaccine will work against the Sudan virus. There are also plans to develop a protocol for testing therapeutics, such as Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Covid antiviral, remdesivir.
This is the fifth outbreak of Ebola caused by the Sudan virus in Uganda since 2000, according to the CDC. The most recent was in 2012, during which limited secondary transmission was reported and the outbreak was contained.
The US government will immediately begin redirecting air travelers from Uganda to JFK International Airport, Washington-Dulles International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, Chicago-O’Hare International Airport, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for Ebola screening. The process will include a temperature check, risk assessment, visual symptom check, and contact information verification. US state and local health departments will follow up with travelers 21 days after leaving Uganda.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Twitter that staff from the agency have been on the ground in Uganda to assist in response efforts. The senior administration official said that CDC has helped train more than 600 community health workers on contact tracing, is setting up WiFi connections to aid in health coordination efforts and has helped establish a mobile laboratory at Mubende Regional Referral Hospital in central Uganda. The agency is also helping with surveillance efforts.
“We have been working very closely with our White House colleagues on the matter,” said Lyric Jorgenson, the acting associate director for science policy at the NIH and acting director of the Office of Science Policy. “When outbreaks are region-specific, we think carefully about how we work with the populations that are effected and how we can enhance the capacity of those that are already addressing research and support within the country.”
The UK’s Health Security Agency has also said it’s monitoring the outbreak in Uganda.
(Updates with information on virus beginning in second section.)
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