IMI Programme Office: You spent a lot of time in the field in Africa during Ebola outbreaks. From a perspective of someone who has been at the front line, could you explain why a project like Mofina was needed in the first place?
Edmund Newman: The purpose of Mofina was to provide quick testing for Ebola in the field where the patients are, where they live, and where they’re getting sick.
My experiences of a few Ebola outbreaks, most recently the west Africa outbreak, has always been the psychological stress and trauma around being a suspected patient of Ebola and how that’s managed in the early days of containment. Currently, if you have been in contact with someone who has had Ebola or has Ebola, then a contact tracing team will come out to your village and talk to you every day about whether you developed any symptoms. If they suspect that you have Ebola, they’ll take you to the Ebola treatment centre which could be hours away from your home, where you’ll then be admitted to the isolation centre and tested. You’ll have to wait several hours for that test result, so you may not get discharged until later day or even the next day…
There was a lot of fear and panic around that – it is something that would be very difficult to deal with in any community. You would have patients who would go into hiding if they felt unwell because they knew they couldn’t hide their symptoms and they’d get taken to the Ebola treatment centre. The other thing that happened quite a lot with people who eventually tested negative, when they were released from the treatment centre, they were stigmatised quite a lot by their local community because they had potentially been exposed to Ebola. So not taking negative people to the Ebola treatment centre would be a massive advantage.
As part of the Mofina project, we developed a portable test, which means that if someone in the village starts to feel unwell that person can be tested in their own home, in their own village. It means you only isolate people who actually have Ebola and you isolate them quicker so they spend less time in the community potentially passing Ebola to others.
IMI Programme Office: Has the Mofina project achieved what it had set out to achieve?
Edmund Newman: Yes, absolutely. We now have a portable platform for testing all of the different types of Ebola virus that can run on a battery pack for up to 8 hours. It is a mobile platform that will give you a test result for all different types of Ebola within just over an hour, 75 minutes. It doesn’t require a big lab set up in the middle of the field somewhere. It is literally a finger prick of blood into an automated machine that is not much bigger than a shoe box and so it can easily be carried around and taken to the patient for testing.
Also you don’t need well trained and experienced scientists on a front line, it can be done by a local healthcare worker, contact tracing team, red cross nurse, anyone like that.
The device has been fully validated and verified for all the strains of Ebola that it tests for. It is CE-IVD marked, so it is commercially available and ready for the next outbreak.
IMI Programme Office: What is the advantage of the Mofina device compared to other similar devices that are already commercially available?
Edmund Newman: There are one or two other rapid test devices but none quite like the Mofina platform. The advantage of this device is that it will test for all different species of Ebola. There are one or two others that will test for the Zaire Ebola virus, which is the strain of Ebola that caused the west Africa outbreak. But if the next outbreak is with any other Ebola strain, of which there are many, then those devices wouldn’t work at all. The advantage of the Mofina platform is not only that it is a truly mobile platform that can be taken out of the lab, which other devices can’t, but also that it can test for all different types of Ebola as well.
IMI Programme Office: What was the main factor which made this project a success?
Edmund Newman: It was the make-up of the consortium. The different partners that worked on the project were a good mix of public health and research institutes from across the EU, and then also commercial partners who brought together the product development and the assay development. It was that mix of disciplines and different backgrounds that meant we really had everything we needed to have in the consortium.
IMI Programme Office: Would a project like this have been possible without IMI?
Edmund Newman: Not that I can see, and certainly not as well. I think the biggest value that IMI has contributed is facilitating that consortium, pulling that together and obviously funding it. That’s been instrumental in the success of the project.
IMI Programme Office: What was it like to be the coordinator of this project?
Edmund Newman: It was mostly rewarding. We really benefited from the people and the good working relationships that we managed to establish so it was actually quite a pleasure to coordinate the project. Everyone got on so well; they knew what their role was and were really enthusiastic about the project and contributing to it.
IMI Programme Office: What are the next steps?
Edmund Newman: We would like to take this cartridge which currently tests for all strains of Ebola and add other viruses that cause similar diseases to it: Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, dengue, Lassa fever, Zika virus… What we would like to do is have one test that does a whole range of viruses including the current Ebola viruses. The hurdle for that is finding people willing to fund that extension of the project before the next outbreak, when these diseases aren’t making headlines.