Marburg has health officials worried, but a vaccine may be on the horizon

marburg virus

A recent outbreak of the Marburg virus in Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania caused the CDC to issue a health advisory on Thursday, April, 6. 

Both countries have been navigating the containment of Marburg since official outbreaks in February 13 (in Equatorial Guinea), and March 21 (in Tanzania), of this year were announced—though on February 7, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare for Equatorial Guinea had announced that there had also been a cluster of deaths in early January.

To date, there is no vaccine for Marburg, and the CDC advises intensive early symptoms treatment as a means for patients to try and survive the virus. Luckily, the tide may soon change as there has been a concerted global effort to find a solution in the form of a new vaccine.

What is Marburg?

The virus, though rare and little known by many in the developed world, is in the same filovirus family of RNA viruses as Ebola and has a fatality rate of up to 88% (compared to Ebola’s 25-90% fatality rate depending on which of the five Ebola strains that are contracted). Like Ebola, Marburg is a hemorrhagic virus and has a 2-21 day incubation period. 

For example, in Tanzania, there were eight lab-confirmed cases with five of those people having died as of April 5 (including one healthcare worker).

Early symptoms include the sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and muscle pain. After about five days, symptoms can progress to include a maculopapular rash that is most prominent on the trunk, as well as nausea, vomiting, chest pain, sore throat, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, which typically appear around this time or shortly after. Finally, symptoms become increasingly severe and can include jaundice, inflammation of the pancreas, severe weight loss, delirium, shock, liver failure, massive hemorrhaging, and multi-organ dysfunction.

Though the origin of Marburg’s first transmission is little understood, it is suspected that the virus first crossed over to humans as a result of two tourists visiting Uganda in 2008 having unprotected contact with infected bat feces or aerosols. Since then, Marburg has spread via person-to-person contact.

Marburg is a critical disease if contracted, and though Marburg’s deadliness tends to make it burn out faster when it comes to the onset of pandemics, global health organizations are unequivocally aggressive in their pursuits to contain and snuff out any potential outbreak. So what is being done now?

Making Marburg a thing of the past

Ever since Equatorial Guinea’s outbreak in February, health officials worldwide have been working alongside the biotech industry and educational institutions to test whether experimental vaccines could offer relief in the future. 

To date, the WHO lists 28 potential vaccine candidates for preventing Marburg, and in late January The Lancet published a paper showing that an experimental vaccine against Marburg was safe and induced an immune response in a small, first-in-human clinical trial. Additionally, no serious adverse events related to vaccination occurred during the phase 1 trial.

The vaccine, known as cAd3-Marburg, which is being developed by researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, “uses a modified chimpanzee adenovirus called cAd3, which can no longer replicate or infect cells and displays a glycoprotein found on the surface of MARV to induce immune responses against the virus.”

While early trials of the vaccine are promising, there is still a way to go in order to get a vaccine to market. Vaccines still need to make it through phase 3 trials and be tested in active outbreaks to prove they work. Additionally, supply chain and distribution issues inherent in equatorial-lying countries  where the virus is most prevalent also need to be addressed.  

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