While the fire may have been put out, the embers of West Africa’s Ebola outbreak continue to sizzle. With lives still being claimed, nations and public health organizations have been left on tenterhooks, fearing further flare-ups. We need a vaccine, that much is clear. So it should come as good news that, thanks to a new deal, we could have one as soon as 2017.
On January 20, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a global public-private organization that helps improve access to immunization, announced it had signed an agreement with pharma company Merck that will not only push forward the development of a vaccine, but also ensure a stockpile exists in the meantime in case of outbreaks.
The vaccine concerned, originally created by the Public Health Agency of Canada, has already been through clinical trials, including in one of the current epidemic’s worst-affected countries, Guinea. While early results suggested it could offer protection rates as high as 100 percent, it’s still not licensed and more trials involving larger numbers of people are needed, which in all likelihood would see efficacy rates drop.
Called rVSVΔG-ZEBOV-GP, the vaccine involves a live animal virus that has been rendered harmless, or attenuated, and modified to produce one of the Ebola virus’ outer proteins. Upon being presented with these viral fragments, the body mounts a response against them so that the immune system is prepared for any future confrontations with the real thing.
To help get this vaccine rolled out, Gavi has dished out a hefty $5 million (£3.5 million) to Merck "on the understanding that it will be submitted for licensure by the end of 2017," a statement from the alliance said. In addition, so that larger trials can go ahead, the agreement states that from May of this year, Merck will have a stock of 300,000 vaccines that can also be used in case of emergencies.
According to a report by ScienceInsider, the reason a vaccine hasn’t been developed until now is not because of failed efforts and scientific stumbling blocks, but rather a lack of effort. Prior to the current epidemic, outbreaks were few and far between and generally only affected small numbers of people in Africa, so there wasn’t an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to pursue a vaccine.
But now that’s changed. Since the current West African outbreak began in 2014, close to 30,000 people have been infected, more than 11,000 of whom died. And while an end to the epidemic was declared by the World Health Organization just one week ago, within hours a new case was confirmed in Sierra Leone, more than two months after the country was anounced free of disease-transmission. Vigilance and careful monitoring are therefore needed to prevent further cases cropping up.