The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa highlighted the need for better global preparedness and response to disease outbreaks. To help address that need in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — the countries most affected by the epidemic — the National Institutes of Health has established a new program to strengthen the research capacity to study Ebola, Lassa fever, yellow fever and other emerging viral diseases. In the initiative’s first funding round, NIH’s Fogarty International Center is awarding grants to four U.S. institutions that will partner with West African academic centers to design training programs for their scientists and health researchers.
The collaborations aim to develop research training proposals that would strengthen the skills required to evaluate vaccines, develop new diagnostic tests and treatments, and identify the most effective intervention strategies for disease outbreaks. These planning grants, totaling $200,000, are intended to help institutions prepare to compete for larger, longer-term Fogarty grants to implement research training programs.
“We hope these awards will catalyze efforts to identify existing resources and plan to address development of sustainable research capacity in the countries that suffered so horribly from Ebola,” said Fogarty Director Roger I. Glass, M.D., Ph.D. “By training local researchers in epidemiology and lab skills, and helping them form networks with U.S. scientists, we believe future disease outbreaks can be better contained.”
This new Fogarty training initiative was developed in response to a World Health Organization (WHO) assessment that noted weak health systems, poor disease surveillance and inadequate research and development resources were among the factors contributing to the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic. The program targets the neighboring countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where more than 28,000 Ebola cases and 11,000 deaths were reported, according to the WHO. The three countries are recovering from conflicts and have fragile health systems. In the first funding round, awards are supporting one partnership in Liberia and three collaborations in Sierra Leone.
Yale University in Connecticut is partnering with the University of Liberia to design a research training program focused on epidemiology and predictive transmission modeling. Based in the capital city of Monrovia, the university is Liberia’s flagship institution for higher education and has a medical school with roughly 200 students. The lead investigators from both countries collaborated on research during the Ebola crisis.
Scientists from Duke University in North Carolina are building on existing relationships with colleagues at the University of Sierra Leone’s College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences (COMAHS), located in the capital city of Freetown. Their joint training plan intends to focus on clinical research for local scientists so they can quickly implement trials for vaccines and therapeutics during a disease outbreak. COMAHS, founded in 1988, is the country’s first medical school and has 1,500 students. Nearby Connaught Hospital, a 120-bed facility, is a partner on the project.
COMAHS is also the collaborating institution on an award to Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. This project aims to plan a research capacity building program in implementation science and clinical trial management to address Ebola, Lassa fever and other viral hemorrhagic fevers. The primary training site will be the Kenema Government Hospital, located in a region with the world’s highest incidence of Lassa fever. The hospital, which contains the country’s only Lassa fever laboratory, has a previously established research relationship with Tulane University in Louisiana. A Tulane scientist will also collaborate on the training project.
Another investigator at Tulane University is receiving funding to assess the research training needs of Sierra Leone’s Njala University, which graduates a substantial number of allied health workers. Its main campus is in Njala, about 125 miles east of the capital, and includes a 50-bed hospital and laboratories that serve the city and surrounding communities. A second campus, about 35 miles away in Bo, has two health centers. The project aims to develop a strategic plan for research training, which may include distance learning opportunities since Njala has already invested in computer labs and high-speed internet.