The U.S. government will not renew funding for a major research project into Lassa fever, a decision that will, in turn, cut resources for a facility in Sierra Leone that is at the forefront of the current battle against the Ebola virus.
The National Institutes of Health rejected a proposal from New Orleans-based Tulane University to renew the five-year contract which expires in November, according to a July 30 letter from NIH reviewed by Reuters. The expiring contract is worth $15 million.
NIH declined to comment on the decision, citing “federal government procurement integrity rules.”
The facility, at Kenema Government Hospital, was set up a decade ago to test and treat Lassa fever. Now it is being used to treat patients stricken with Ebola. Both are hemorrhagic fevers caused by distinct families of viruses. Ebola is the most lethal, leading to death in up to 90 percent of cases.
Last week, the facility’s director and chief physician, Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, died after becoming infected with Ebola. Its head nurse and two other nurses have also died, and some other staff are sick. The Ebola outbreak, the worst ever recorded, has killed 932 people across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
As part of the Tulane research project, which was designed to identify diagnostics and treatment for Lassa, researchers support the Kenema facility, which has a 5,500 square foot laboratory and similarly sized hospital ward. Blood samples from infected patients are used to develop tests and diagnostics.
Funds from the Tulane project support most of the facility’s operations, including $100,000 a year to supplement meager government salaries received by some 30 staff – including doctors, nurses, lab technicians and field workers – said Robert Garry, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane, who heads the program.
The program also supplies laboratory equipment, including protective garments, pipettes, and all materials needed to analyze blood samples.
It is unclear whether the facility will be able to raise funds from other sources to replace the Tulane project money.