Scientists Reach Crucial Milestone In Ebola Vaccine

People hang out in a street under a banner which warns people to be cautious about Ebola, in Monrovia, Liberia. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JONATHAN PAYE-LAYLEH
People hang out in a street under a banner which warns people to be cautious about Ebola, in Monrovia, Liberia. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JONATHAN PAYE-LAYLEH

After nearly nine months and more than 7,000 deaths in West Africa, scientists may have reached a crucial milestone in developing an Ebola vaccine.

Initial trials in the United States and Uganda show “promising results” with 57 percent of Ugandan volunteers who received the vaccine developing antibodies against Ebola in their blood, according to the Lancet medical journal. This has given researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a glimmer of hope, especially since other trial vaccines haven’t proven safe for African populations.

“This is the first study to show comparable safety and immune response of an experimental Ebola vaccine in an African population,” Dr. Julie Ledgerwood, the lead researcher, told BBC News. “This is particularly encouraging because those at greatest risk of Ebola live primarily in Africa and diminished vaccine protection in African populations has been seen for other diseases.”

Though no proven treatment for Ebola exists, businesses have tried to market faulty, unapproved methods of protection in recent months to the chagrin of government health officials. In the race to find a cure and mass distribute it by June 2015, researchers have fast tracked trials, which usually take years and decades, so that they only take months. Researchers told BBC News earlier this month that they face a number of challenges in meeting their goal, including the issue of ethics in vaccine testing during an outbreak and a lack of public trust in some communities.

In the past, doctors used the experimental drug ZMapp to treat aid workers infected by the virus. Researchers have also toyed around with the idea of using Ebola survivors’ blood, which contains antibodies that respond to infection. Earlier this year, two Ebola vaccines — each produced by NIH in the United States and Canada’s Public Health Agency — have passed animal studies into human trials. Future trials will take place in the United Kingdom, United States, Switzerland, and Mali to determine how long protections against the virus would last.

Ebola, first discovered in the 1970s in Central Africa, transfers from people from wild animals and spreads in human populations through human-to-human contact, via blood and other bodily fluids of the infected. Symptoms, which can last anywhere between two days and three weeks, include fever, severe headache, muscle pain, fatigue, diarrhea, and unexplained hemorrhaging.

The virus, formerly relegated to sparsely populated regions, resurfaced along the Guinea/Sierra Leone border in March, marking the beginning of what the World Health Organization designated as one of the most complex outbreaks in recent history. Since the spring, Ebola has spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, and Mali, infecting more than 10,000 people and turning the world’s attention to a region lacking an effective health care infrastructure.

Even with contributions from the United States, Cuba, and other African countries, international aid in the fight against Ebola has lagged behind that of efforts amid prior outbreaks and natural disasters. Some countries including China, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain have not followed through on their pledges. The struggle to raise $1 billion in the fight against Ebola, in short, has stalled efforts to construct treatment centers, trace the spread of the virus, and most importantly develop a vaccine quickly.

Though world leaders have increasingly provided aid in recent months, there’s still work left to be done in eradicating the virus and preventing a global pandemic. Last month, Margaret Chan, WHO’s director general, turned her attention to the pharmaceutical industry, railing against what she described as its love of profits at the expense of people’s lives.

“A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay,” Chan said, according to The New York Times. “WHO has been trying to make this issue visible for ages. Now people can see for themselves.”