The UK government and the Wellcome Trust have launched a £6.5 million initiative for emergency Ebola research to tackle the epidemic in West Africa .

Proposals will be “reviewed immediately with a view to enabling research to start as soon as possible”, says the UK’s Department for International Development. Its secretary, Justine Greening said “this will help us better equip those working on the ground so they can tackle the outbreak as effectively as possible and prevent more people contracting this terrible disease”.

Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar said the gravity of the Ebola epidemic “demands an urgent response and we believe rapid research into humanitarian interventions and therapeutics can have an impact on treatment and containment during the present outbreak”. He added that “what we learn could also change the way we approach future outbreaks, providing us with tested tools and techniques that were not available to public health authorities this time”.

The Wellcome Trust also unveiled a five-year £40 million “programme of support for excellence in African research” which has “a long-term vision of developing a new generation of outstanding African health researchers.” It will look at research that “addresses the continent’s health priorities, including emerging and endemic infections, persistent threats such as HIV, TB and malaria, and the growing challenge of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, stroke, cancer and mental health”.

Poverty, dysfunctional health systems and fear

Returning to Ebola, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation said that “intense media coverage has allowed the world to see what can happen when a lethal and deeply dreaded virus takes root in a setting of extreme poverty and dysfunctional health systems”.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, she stated that “experience tells us that Ebola outbreaks can be contained, even without a vaccine or cure”. Nonetheless, with the “formidable combination” of poverty, limited health systems and fear, “no one is talking about an early end to the outbreak”.

Dr Chan concluded by saying that “the international community will need to gear up for many more months of massive, coordinated, and targeted assistance. A humane world cannot let the people of West Africa suffer on such an extraordinary scale”.