Ebola, believed to be caused by four or five viruses, begins with influenza-like symptoms. Headaches, confusion, seizures and sometimes coma can follow, as well as a rash. For a large proportion of those affected the disease is fatal, due to multiple organ failure.
While the total number of people killed is still far lower than other infectious diseases such as measles or malaria, it has caused alarm due to Ebola’s high death rate and the fact that there is no cure and no vaccine.
The Lancet medical journal reports that potential vaccines are currently being tested and several others are also in the early stages of laboratory research.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) will begin ‘efficacy trials’ of two Ebola vaccines in December. These vaccines are still in phase one trials which test whether they are safe in a small group of people.
One of the leading candidate vaccines was developed by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). It has already gone through some initial safety tests at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute in the UK.
Another potential vaccine was developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and NewLink Genetics. Phase 1 trails began last month in the US and are set to expand to research centres in Switzerland, Germany, Gabon and Kenya.
If safety tests are successfully completed, field trials on larger numbers of volunteers will take place in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is likely to begin with a trial including 20,000 health workers.
Meanwhile, vaccine companies have been working to increase production capacity. If the vaccines pass all clinical trials and are shown to be safe and effective, millions of doses of vaccine will be required next year.
A number of other potential vaccines are also in development. Johnson & Johnson is working with a Danish company, Bavarian Nordic, to start phase 1 trials early in 2015 with the aim of having 250,000 doses ready by May.
With Ebola among the priorities of the WHO, manufacturers, academics and philanthropists, hope for a vaccine are rising. For some, it cannot come soon enough.
The EU is also stepping up its investment in vaccine development, clinical trials, storage and transport, as well as diagnostics and treatments.
The Innovative Medicines Initiative – a public-private partnership between the European Commission and research-based pharmaceutical companies – has allocated €280 million to Ebola vaccine projects.