The international development secretary, Justine Greening, has launched an emergency research initiative to look into spread of Ebola, which has claimed more than 1,200 lives in west Africa.
The £6.5m programme co-funded by the Wellcome Trust was announced a day after a director of Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) accused western leaders of taking "almost zero" interest in the crisis in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Greening said she hoped the research would "better equip those working on the ground so they can tackle the outbreak as effectively as possible".
Val Snewin, international activities manager at Wellcome Trust, said: "There's an urgency to this. We are not an emergency team, but what we can do is mobilise research. Unless someone is willing to commit to research you cannot learn to improve things either later in this outbreak or the next one."
The Department for International Development and the trust hope to have research commissioned and completed within two months, meaning it could have an impact on the current crisis, which is expected to last more than six months.
Among the projects they may look at are case detection systems in places such as Sierra Leone and Liberia where there is illiteracy and weak health infrastructure and where accurate data on the spread of the disease is difficult to come by. Snewin said they would also be prepared to fund clinical trials for prototype diagnostic tools.
This week the World Food Programme announced it was stepping up emergency food deliveries after reports of shortages in quarantined areas.
MSF has called for international leadership and resources to tackle Ebola. The UK's Disaster Emergency Committee has said it would support a transnational intervention if asked.
A DEC spokesman, responding to MSF's plea, said: "A regional monitoring and tracing programme would require leadership from national governments in the affected countries, probably with the support of the UN agencies. Were such a programme initiated, many DEC members might well be in a position to support it."
On Wednesday , police in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, fired teargas to disperse a crowd agitating to leave a neighbourhood placed under quarantine because of Ebola, witnesses said.
Liberia has the highest death toll of the four west African countries affected by the disease, with the fastest-rising number of cases. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered the quarantine and imposed a night-time curfew that began on Wednesday.
Snewin said a committee of experts was in place for the initiative, drawing on the UN, WHO and academia, who could approve research proposals. Among the areas that interest Wellcome are treatment-seeking behaviour, case detection systems and clinical management.
"What are the social reasons for seeking treatment? In some areas there is distrust of western medical centres and that then fuels potential transmission," she said. "WHO has various guidelines and practices that it feels are necessary to manage the crisis, are these working? Are these the best practices? Can we learn now and amend these practices?"
Aminatta Forna, page 34
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010