Stephen Oryszczuk meets Dr Leslie Lobel, an American-born Israeli virologist at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev who’s been working to eradicate Ebola for 12 years.“Everyone thought I was nuts,” he says, with the air of someone who’s nuts, but who’s been right all along.
Small outbreaks have appeared all over central Africa ever since.
Both are deadly. Neither yet have a cure.
Lobel, who looks uncannily like Dustin Hoffman’s virologist character Col. Sam Daniels from the film Outbreak, knows them intimately. “There’s a tiny difference, but they’re basically the same virus,” he says. “They’d killed about 3,000 before this year, so nobody really cared. It didn’t raise eyebrows. Over 30,000 die in the US every year from influenza, so I understand why the world didn’t wake up.”
Unlike influenza, which changes dramatically year to year (hence the need for annual vaccinations), the three main strains of Ebola have not altered greatly but have mutated, and this is only natural. Lobel says: “They try to evoke fear in the news, saying that the virus is changing, but viruses change all the time, it is normal for them,” Lobel explains.
“In fact, their replication machinery is designed to insert mutations. It leads to an incredible diversity and means viruses will always get around, whatever we throw at them.”
Surrounded by test tubes and needles and now slightly depressed, I sit there listening to how the virus enters and destroys parts of the body, mainly the circulatory system. “That’s why you bleed out,” he says, eyes and voice retracting, as if remembering what he’s seen. “It’s remarkably fast. That’s why it’s so hard to help them.”
With 6,300 dead this year alone, many are trying. Israeli charity IsraAid is on the ground providing psychosocial support, while World Jewish Relief (WJR) has coordinated UK efforts, raising £100,000 and working with partners in Sierra Leone to provide food, clothing and bedding to children orphaned by the virus.
“It’s heart-breaking stuff,” says WJR campaign manager Richard Verber, who tells me about 13-year-old Mema Kromah from West Africa, who is angry because “Daddy said he was not going to die and leave me alone but he lied to me”. It leaves a lump in your throat.
But while charities can only help those affected, it is virologists such as Lobel and his Israeli team who can help prevent deaths. From a professional perspective, he says he finds Ebola “fascinating” because it creates a situation where the immune system fails. “If the edge of physics is a nuclear explosion, then this is the edge of biology,” he says. “You can learn a lot when things completely fall apart.”
Israeli and British institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (whose president is co-chair of the Britain-Israel Life Sciences Council) have held an emergency meeting on Ebola response and bilateral collaboration against the outbreak, with the British embassy in Tel Aviv helping to set it up. It would make sense. London’s School of Tropical Medicine is one of many first-class institutions in the UK and – like Lobel – British teams already work in Uganda.
“The Brits get it,” says Lobel, who works with a team from Glasgow. “They understand how to treat infectious diseases and how to work with the world.
I guess it comes from their experience with former colonies.”
Lobel is not trying to develop new vaccines, however. “They were developed a long time ago,” he says, exploding a popular misconception. “Now it’s about testing them in humans and making them.”
Indeed, scientists from the US only recently reported positive results following the world’s first human testing, using a vaccine produced by British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
“We don’t yet know the markers of immunity long-term,” he says. “So we’re following survivors, and we’re going back to those special people who have full immunity, which can neutralise the virus, and we’re taking antibodies from them.”
His work, which is due to last five years and involves a drawn-out patenting process, involves these antibodies being tested on two animal species in the US, where this is legal.
But despite the promising signs, Lobel says there is still much to learn. “From our research, we know there are a number of Achilles’ heels to this virus, different parts of it, and most of the world has been focused on just one of them. We believe that the most effective cocktail will focus on a range of these Achilles’ heels, and that’s what we’re doing here at Ben-Gurion University.”