As an outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria continues to spread, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is working with Themis Bioscience to develop a vaccine to protect against the virus.
In response to an outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria that began at the start of 2018, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) is leading what it says is a multi-agency, multi-partner response to the country’s largest outbreak yet of the virus.
Humans can catch Lassa fever through the feces or urine of infected Mastomys rats. Following an incubation period of 2 to 21 days, symptoms such as fever, general weakness, and malaise can develop. Symptoms can go on to include headache, sore throat, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cough, and abdominal pain as the infection progresses. In more severe cases, Lassa fever can result in facial swelling, fluid in the lung cavity, and bleeding from the mouth, nose, vagina, or gastrointestinal tract. At its worst, the infection can cause shock, seizures, tremor, disorientation, coma, and death.
On March 18, 2018, the NCDC released a situation report on the Lassa outbreak announcing 9 new confirmed cases and 3 new confirmed deaths. Since January 1, 2018, Nigeria has seen 1,495 suspected cases of Lassa fever, 376 of which have been confirmed and 9 of which are probable. The states of Edo, Ondo, and Ebonyi have reported 83% of the confirmed cases, with 19 Nigerian states reporting at least 1 confirmed case. Of the 119 Lassa-related deaths in the country, 86 have been ruled positive-confirmed, 9 are probable, and 4 occurred in health care workers.
The NCDC recently announced that epidemiologists in Nigeria are using a new whole-genome sequencing tool to conduct real-time virus sequencing to help health officials in the country understand and control the current outbreak. With this tool, researchers have found that there are no new virus lineages in the current outbreak and that the circulating virus strains are consistent with prior outbreaks there. They have yet to determine what has caused an outbreak of such a magnitude.
In addition, the NCDC recently disputed a news report that the high cost of Lassa fever treatment with the antiviral drug Ribavirin was leading to high mortality in the current outbreak. “While we acknowledge the high cost of treating Lassa fever cases in Nigeria, especially the cost of the drug Ribavirin, we want to state unequivocally that the Federal Government of Nigeria has ensured that Ribavirin has been provided free-of-charge to patients, for every single case of Lassa fever reported in Nigeria in 2018,” the NCDC said in a recent statement. “In addition to this, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control has ensured that every state in Nigeria has an emergency stock of Ribavirin and other response commodities available to manage cases.”
While there is no vaccine for Lassa fever currently available, on March 7, 2018, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Themis Bioscience announced a new partnership aimed at developing and manufacturing a Lassa vaccine. The agreement is the first CEPI has made with a company since the creation of the coalition was announced in 2017, and will include an investment of up to $37,500,000 over a 5-year period.
“As we can see with the current outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria, these diseases devastate lives and have far-reaching economic consequences,” said CEO of CEPI, Richard Hatchett, MD, in a recent media statement. “Vaccines are a vital part of our fight against them but their development is costly, complex and challenging.”