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The accelerated testing of new Ebola vaccines is offering hope to the people of West African countries badly hit by the deadly virus, the head of the World Health Organization said Thursday.
WHO experts are meeting to take a look at ongoing trials of Ebola vaccines and the best way to get the vaccines out of the laboratory and into the arms of people who can benefit from them.
“I think all of us have high expectations for the outcome of this meeting,” WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan said.
“You can give them some of that hope.”
“As a WHO staff member who has spent several months in Guinea recently observed, what people need most is hope. They have watched families and communities torn apart by this virus for a year and are close to despair,” she added.
“You can give them some of that hope.”
Trials of at least four different Ebola vaccines are under way in the U.S., Europe and Africa. It’s a process that can and usually does take years, but WHO, governments and non-profit organizations have sped up the process and are trying to finish it in months.
Ebola’s now infected more than 20,000 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and killed more than 8,000 of them.
Chan has said WHO was far too slow to identify the crisis and to get the world moving to help stop it. Previous Ebola outbreaks have been stopped after, at the most, a few hundred cases, but this one turned into an international epidemic as people crossed borders and carried the virus into cities.
Groups including the U.S. military have built treatment clinics and have helped create safe burial teams to help prevent the spread of the virus, but the epidemic continues to worsen in many places.
Vaccines against Ebola have been in the works for years, but there hasn’t been much of a sense of urgency because the virus affected so few people, and in sporadic and hard-to-predict outbreaks. But an epidemic of this size provides both the need and the opportunity to test the vaccines.
“We all want the momentum and sense of urgency to continue,” Chan told the experts, who will report their findings Friday.
“Previous experts agreed that vaccines will have an impact on the Ebola epidemic in any future scenario, whether worst-case or best-case. I see no indication that this view has changed,” she added.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health is testing two vaccines, one made using an animal virus called vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) genetically engineered to carry a tiny piece of Ebola, and a second using a genetically engineered cold virus called an adenovirus.
Other groups are also testing the vaccines.
NIH is also helping develop a third type of vaccine that started testing this week. Drug giant Johnson & Johnson and several smaller companies have been working on the two-dose vaccine, which researchers at Oxford University in Britain are giving to volunteers.
A trial in Switzerland of the VSV formula was suspended last year after some of the volunteers developed joint pain — a known but troubling potential side-effect of some vaccines made using living viruses. But other trials of vaccines, including one being done among volunteers in the West African nation of Mali, have indicated the vaccines are safe and prompt an immune response that would be expected to protect a person from Ebola.
The NIH’s the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says a trial of two other Ebola vaccines in Uganda also indicates they are safe and should work.
“We all want the momentum and sense of urgency to continue."
“It is my understanding that no major safety signals have been reported to date. Trials of the Merck vaccine have restarted after a pause at the end of December,” Chan said. Volunteers are now getting a lower dose in that trial, the researchers have said.
Johnson & Johnson says it’s already made 400,000 regimens of its experimental vaccine and would have 2 million available for use in 2015 — with up to 3 million more by 2016 if needed.
GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, has said its board has voted to commit as much as $300 million to buy Ebola vaccines, and spend as much as $90 million to help countries distribute them.
Meanwhile, an international team of researchers said this week it's started testing an experimental drug called brincidofovir on Ebola patients at one hospital in Liberia.
"All new patients confirmed to be Ebola positive by blood test at the treatment centre in Monrovia will be informed about the trial and can decide whether they would like to participate or not," Britain's University of Oxford said in a statement. "Those who do not wish to be given the new treatment will receive the same standard supportive care as those who do."