April 15, 2019

Research Roundup: WHO emergency panel meets about Ebola in DRC, new study reveals HIV vulnerabilities, and how Global Health Investment Fund is revolutionizing impact investing

Ansley Kahn
Senior Program Assistant
PATH/Satvir Malhotra

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A World Health Organization committee of experts who met on Friday to discuss the recent escalation of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) decided against declaring it a public health emergency of international concern. The response to this outbreak, which has persisted for more than eight months and has killed more than 751 people, has been complicated by conflict, political instability, and distrust of Ebola services in the DRC. An experimental vaccine is being administered to known contacts of Ebola patients, as well as contacts of contacts and frontline workers, through a ring vaccination approach; yet, this remains a resource-intensive task that relies on the ability to quickly trace all contacts at risk and community trust in order to be effective. Commenting on why the committee decided against declaring this outbreak a global health crisis, Professor Robert Steffen, chairman of the committee, stated, “Although there was great concern about rising number [of cases] in some regions, the outbreak has not spread internationally,” but also added that efforts to contain the crisis should be redoubled. Other experimental therapies—a second vaccine and a post-exposure prophylaxis treatment—are also under consideration to help combat the epidemic.

While the HIV virus is detectable in blood, once it enters human cells, the virus can remain hidden and out of reach of the immune system. However, a new study’s findings suggest that scientists may have discovered a way to reveal the presence of HIV in human cells. Scientists have identified a new shape of an essential HIV protein, dubbed State 2A, that allows the virus to gain entry into cells by interacting with a receptor on the cells, known as CD4, and two types of antibodies. Previously, scientists knew about three shapes, or conformations, that the protein uses to force its way into human cells. However, this fourth shape is one that the virus doesn’t usually adopt but allows it to elude the immune system. Forcing the protein, known as the envelope, in this new shape may reveal vulnerabilities within the virus to make it visible to the immune system, opening up a new potential strategy to enhance the effectiveness of treatment.

Forbes interviewed Dr. Curt LaBelle, Managing Partner of the Global Health Investment Fund (GHIF)—a social impact investment fund initially structured and backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation) and JP Morgan in 2012. Focused on achieving a “double bottom line” of improving health outcomes and securing financial returns, the fund targets US$5-15 million investments in innovative global health companies that develop products that can be used in resource-limited settings. Now backed by other organizations such as GSK, Merck, and Grand Challenges Canada, among others, GHIF has advanced numerous technologies including a low-cost cataract surgery tool, a new oral cholera vaccine, and a river blindness treatment. This interview highlights the fund’s investment methodology and process, recent and successful investments, and how the fund manages the social impact of its investments, among other topics.