New research funding to strengthen Ebola response

A portable device that can test bodily fluids for Ebola and anthropological training for health workers to help them work more effectively with local communities are among the five research programmes that the UK government and the Wellcome Trust are funding to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The Department for International Development (DFID) and the Wellcome Trust are releasing £1.34 million from a joint fund to support five projects, run by leading British and international researchers, which will improve the quality of evidence and understanding of the Ebola outbreak.

The research covers areas that are vital to establishing a more effective response in West Africa to the disease, from the development of improved diagnostic tools to strengthening surveillance and protecting health workers.

International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: "I have seen for myself in Sierra Leone the devastation that Ebola can cause.

"The UK has taken the lead in tackling this outbreak in Sierra Leone. The first of six British-built treatment centres is now open and British funding is trebling the number of treatment beds, supporting burial teams, researching a vaccine and providing vital supplies for thousands of health workers. These ground-breaking new research projects have the potential to transform understanding of the disease."

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "Up until now, support for the Ebola outbreak has focused on improving public health measures by increasing facilities and equipment, and fast tracking vaccine and drug trials. However, without knowledge and understanding of local communities this life-saving work can often fail. This funding will address that gap by training medical staff to engage effectively with local people about key issues, improving diagnostic tests and providing predictive mapping of the spread of the disease."

The projects, managed by Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA), include the development of a device to provide reliable, rapid and safe diagnostic tests suitable for use in the field.

EbolaCheck, led by the University of Westminster, aims to test bodily fluids, such as saliva, for Ebola in a single process, providing results within 40 minutes - over eight times quicker than some existing laboratory techniques.

Another project - the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform - led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the University of Sussex - will develop advice and training for health workers in West Africa.

The project will help staff communicate health messages effectively, assess the acceptability of drug trials to people in West Africa, support the modification of funeral practices in Sierra Leone to improve safety, and develop home nursing guidelines.

The funding for the five projects has been made available from an existing £6.5m research initiative, Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC), which is jointly funded by DFID and the Wellcome Trust.

The unprecedented scale of the Ebola crisis in West Africa has highlighted the need for better evidence to inform more effective responses to this and future outbreaks.

Summary of research proposals (total £1.34m)

1. EbolaCheck - a portable device that tests bodily fluids for Ebola
University of Westminster - Dr Sterghios Moschos

This project looks at the development of a cost-effective, portable, battery-powered device that can provide reliable, rapid and safe diagnostic tests suitable for use in the field.

EbolaCheck aims to test bodily fluids for Ebola in a single process, providing results within 40 minutes - over eight times quicker than some existing laboratory techniques.

2. Predicting the geographic spread of Ebola virus disease in West Africa
University of Oxford - Professor Simon Hay and Dr Nick Golding

Using data on human mobility, population density and transport infrastructure in West African countries, this piece of research will make predictions about disease spread. This will enable resources to be deployed more effectively to contain the epidemic.

The information will be mapped out and contain summaries of health centres most likely to see new cases. This will be continuously updated as data become available and shared through an online tool.

3. Behaviour change to help infection prevention and control
International Rescue Committee - Dr Lara Ho

This research, being carried out in Sierra Leone, analyses the levels of knowledge and risk perceptions among health workers. The aim is to help overcome barriers that staff may face in adhering to standard precautions. This will ensure that safety procedures and training for health workers are as effective as possible to reduce the risk of infection while working on the front line.

4. Modelling the Ebola epidemic in West Africa
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine - Professor John Edmunds

This piece of research uses statistical modelling to analyse data collected by MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) in West Africa to look at how many cases and deaths from Ebola might be expected over time. The study will look at what healthcare facilities will be needed to cope with different scenarios.

5. Ebola Response Anthropology Platform
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine - Dr Melissa Parker

The Ebola Response Anthropology Platform will look at developing locally appropriate interventions. The project aims to provide rapid, practical advice on how to engage more effectively with affected populations.