Dr. Fredrick A. Murphy

Dr. Fredrick A. Murphy Still Fighting Deadly Diseases 40 Years Later and Counting

Peering through an electron microscope, Fox Hill resident Dr. Frederick A. Murphy, D.V.M. Ph.D., was the first person to see Ebola virus. As chief of viral pathology at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, he and his team discovered and identified the virus in 1976.

“It initially looked like Marburg virus, which was found nine years earlier, but it quickly became apparent this was something new and very scary; the hair on the nape of my neck stood up,” said Murphy, who went on to serve as the director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases and then as Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis before becoming professor of virology and experimental pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.

There were more than 27,000 cases of hemorrhagic fever and at least 11,000 deaths during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, according to the CDC and World Health Organization. The epidemic has ended, but the virus still remains in its niche in the wild ready to reappear in the future.

“The virus continues its life cycle in the tropical forests of Africa, transmitted among fruit bats in ways that are just now beginning to be understood,” said Murphy, 82, who lives at Fox Hill Retirement Community in Bethesda, Maryland. “One way the virus jumps from bats to humans is when bats are hunted for bush meat. The virus is then spread from human to human by close contact such as when family members or health care providers take care of ill patients. Human to human spread is facilitated as people travel, often across borders, especially where there is a dense population. Ebola attacks the body quickly, often killing its victims in a week or two, so treatment of sick patients is quite difficult. Within a given patient one can say that there is a race going on between the virus and the patient’s immune system. There has been much recent success in containment and treatment. In the wake of the West African outbreak, there is a greater sense of urgency for development of drugs and vaccines.”

A breakthrough in Ebola vaccine research was announced in December – an experimental vaccine was found to be 100 percent effective in preventing disease in a small clinical trial in West Africa. The World Health Organization said the results were promising. Murphy cautioned, however, saying that “the media, and often the researchers themselves, go beyond the objective results and promise more than the data supports. There is still a long way to go in proving efficacy and safety over a longer period and in larger populations, all required for vaccine licensing. Then, of course, is the large matter of determining how the vaccine is to be used in Africa and who is going to pay for it. The easy matter is how the vaccine would be used in health care workers and researchers, who are at great risk – the harder matter is how to prevent outbreaks in the general population of Africa, perhaps without vaccinating everyone.”

Recognized as a worldwide authority on viruses, Murphy’s pivotal role in discovering Ebola virus was featured in the subsequent book The Hot Zone and the movie Outbreak. Murphy recently co-wrote Medical Virology, which was published by Elsevier in late 2016 and examines human pathogenic viruses. The book offers some of the latest insight and expertise, and serves as an important guide for medical students, faculty and professionals. Ebola and the Zika viruses are among the pathogens addressed. “We were slow off the mark regarding Zika,” Murphy said. “The only way to deal with it is to kill mosquitoes and that costs money and we didn’t invest enough and early enough. Next summer we’ll see just how widely it has spread.”

Murphy noted that the main sites for research on Ebola, Zika and other viruses in the U.S. are the CDC in Atlanta, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda and several universities, especially the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Specialized treatment facilities have been established in recent years, including at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda.

“Research toward better treatment and prevention has been ongoing since the Ebola virus was discovered forty years ago,” Murphy said. “Our ultimate goal is having effective drugs and vaccine ready to go before it rears its ugly head again – which it surely will.”

Dr. Frederick A. Murphy has lived at Fox Hill since September of 2015.