U.S. Ebola 'czar' starts work, drugmakers launch vaccine drive

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The new U.S. Ebola “czar” starts work on Wednesday as the Obama administration ramps up its response to the potential spread of the virus, and drugmakers started a project to accelerate development of a vaccine and produce millions of doses.

As the administration boosted airport screening measures in response to criticism that it was slow to act against Ebola, a Pentagon emergency Ebola medical team was scheduled to begin training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

The virus has killed more than 4,500 people, predominantly in three impoverished West African countries, in the worst outbreak of the disease since it was identified in 1976.

U.S. President Barack Obama was set to hold a meeting on Wednesday with Ron Klain, his new Ebola response coordinator, amid rising Republican criticism ahead of congressional elections next month.

Klain, a lawyer and veteran Democratic political operative, was expected to improve coordination between the federal government and the states after three cases were diagnosed in the United States, all in Texas; Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who died on Oct. 8 in Dallas, and two nurses who treated him.

Leading drugmakers said on Wednesday that they planned to develop an Ebola vaccine and produce millions of doses of the most effective experimental product for use next year.
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Ebola in America
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The World Health Organization said it hopes tens of thousand of people in Africa, including front-line healthcare workers, can start receiving vaccines beginning in January. Johnson & Johnson announced that it aims to produce 1 million doses of its two-step vaccine next year.

The U.S. Defense Department’s emergency medical team – including five infectious disease doctors, 20 critical care nurses and five trainers who are experts in infectious disease protocols – will gather in Texas on Wednesday to start three days of training, the Pentagon said.

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The Obama administration has ratcheted up its response to Ebola but so far has stopped short of a travel ban from West African countries hit by Ebola demanded by some lawmakers.

The Department of Homeland Security said on Tuesday that travelers from the three countries at the center of the epidemic – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – would be funneled to one of five major U.S. airports conducting enhanced screening for the virus. The restrictions on passengers whose trips originated in those countries were due to go into effect on Wednesday.
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Sierra Leone on Ebola lockdown
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Affected travelers will have their temperatures checked for signs of a fever that may indicate Ebola infection, among other protocols, at New York’s John F. Kennedy, New Jersey’s Newark, Washington Dulles, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, and Chicago’s O’Hare international airports, officials said.

Two travelers from Liberia were under observation in hospitals in Chicago on Wednesday after they reported symptoms during screening at O’Hare on Tuesday.

One, a child, reportedly vomited on the flight to Chicago, health officials said. A physician at the hospital where the child was taken said doctors suspect the patient does not have Ebola but was isolated as a precaution.

In New Jersey, a Liberian passenger with a fever was taken to a hospital out of concern he had been exposed to Ebola, local media reported.

A Reuters/Ipsos online poll released on Tuesday showed that nearly three-fourths of 1,602 Americans surveyed favored a U.S. ban on civilian air travel in and out of the three countries.

But Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on Wednesday said such restrictions would not effectively curb Ebola.

“It (Ebola) creates a lot of fear and extreme panic that sometimes lead to very irrational type of behaviors and measures, like closing borders, canceling flights, isolating countries, etc.,” Sy told reporters in Beijing, where the IFRC was holding a conference. “Those are not solutions.”

A group of some 50 Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Liberia on Wednesday to help treat patients.

The two U.S. nurses who contracted Ebola after treating Thomas Duncan were both improving. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) upgraded the medical condition Nina Pham on Tuesday to good from fair. The other, Amber Vinson, is weak but recovering, her mother said.

NBC freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, an American who contracted Ebola while working in West Africa, is free of the virus and will leave the Nebraska Medical Center on Wednesday, the hospital said.

(Additional reporting by James Harding Giahyue in Monrovia, Daniel Trotta in Havana, Ben Hirschler in London, Susan Heavey in Washington and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)