Five co-authors of a new Ebola study died of the virus before their research was published


Sheik Umar Khan, the head doctor fighting the deadly tropical virus Ebola in Sierra Leone, poses for a picture in Freetown in June. He died in July.(Umaru Fofana/Reuters)

Underlining the immense risks taken by those working in West Africa to understand and combat the worsening Ebola outbreak, five co-authors of an important new Ebola study were killed by the virus before their research was published.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, found that the virus has mutated during the outbreak — something that could hinder diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

The five deceased co-authors, who were from Sierra Leone’s Kenema Government Hospital Lassa fever facility, worked with the study’s lead researchers at Harvard University to examine the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. In all, the research involved more than 50 co-authors.

It’s an extraordinary study, and it came with an extraordinary toll. Pardi Sabeti, whose Harvard lab oversaw the genetic sequencing at the center of the research, told The Post’s Brady Dennis that the the experience of working on the international study was “one of the most rewarding and devastating experiences of my life,” with the thrill of conducting the collaborative research tempered by the sadness of losing numerous colleagues who were working on the front lines.

The study demonstrates just how effective an international research effort can be in the middle of a global health crisis. Researchers sequenced the virus genomes from 78 patients in the current outbreak, starting with its early days in the spring.

Among other things, the international team of researchers managed to trace the outbreak in Sierra Leone to a single funeral in the country. Researchers discovered that a pregnant Kenema Government Hospital Ebola patient had, along with about a dozen other women who were also infected, attended the funeral of a traditional healer who was treating Ebola victims on the Sierra Leone-Guinea border.

On the same day the findings were published, Science wrote a separate piece about the five researchers who died while working on the study.

Mbalu Fonnie, an experienced nurse at the Kenema Government Hospital, was among the five victims. Her specialty? Managing advanced Lassa fever infections — a disease with symptoms similar to Ebola — in pregnant women. Fonnie was caring for one of her co-workers, who was pregnant and infected with Ebola, when she contracted the disease herself. According to study co-author Robert Garry, Fonnie was the “matron of nursing” at the Sierra Leone hospital.

Alex Moigboi, Fonnie’s fellow nurse, who contracted Ebola while treating the same pregnant colleague. He had more than 10 years of experience working with Lassa fever patients.

Alice Kovoma was also infected while helping Fonnie and Moigboi treat their colleague. Garry told Science that Kovoma was “a wonderful person … very dedicated and professional with a devotion to the patients and her teammates.” She was a nurse for six years in the Lassa fever ward.

Mohamed Fullah worked as a lab technician on the study. He taught at Eastern Polytechnic College in Sierra Leone, and also worked in the Lassa fever facility. His colleagues believe that Fullah contracted the disease from a family member — several relatives had died of the virus in the current outbreak, which has killed at least 1,552 people, according to the World Health Organization.

Sheik Umar Khan was the director of the Ministry of Health and Sanitation’s Lassa fever program and was directly involved in Sierra Leone’s national response to the Ebola outbreak. He was a well-respected expert on both Lassa fever and Ebola. At the time of his death, in late July, Khan was hailed as a national hero. He treated more than 100 patients in the outbreak before he contracted the disease himself.

In a June interview with Reuters, Khan spoke of the dangers health-care workers face while working with Ebola: “I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life. Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk.

Khan was treated at a Doctors Without Borders facility after contracting the virus. His death prompted an international discussion after Doctors Without Borders was forced to defend its decision against giving Khan an experimental drug to treat the disease.

On the same day the study was published, the WHO warned that the current outbreak could infect more than 20,000 people before it’s over. On Friday, officials in Senegal announced that the country had its first confirmed case of Ebola.

Five countries — Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and now Senegal — have confirmed Ebola infections within their borders. (Ebola cases have been reported in Congo, too, but health officials there have said it’s a different strain of the deadly virus, not connected to the outbreak in West Africa.)

There have been 3,069 Ebola infections recorded by the WHO, and more than half of those infected have died, according to the WHO.

On Thursday, U.S. government researchers, in collaboration with British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, announced that they will begin human trials next week at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., of an experimental Ebola vaccine. Health officials said they want to rush the drug as quickly as possible to health workers and others at risk in West Africa.

Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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Abby Ohlheiser and Abby Phillip · August 29