The first human trials of an Ebola vaccine will begin in the United States next week, officials said Thursday, after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that more than 20,000 people could end up being infected before the outbreak in West Africa can be stopped.
The American National Institutes of Health (NIH) said it will sponsor the first trial of the vaccine, which it co-developed with drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, at its clinical centre in Bethesda, Maryland. Other test sites will include Britain and potentially Gambia, Mali and Nigeria.
The trial is being fast-tracked as the Ebola outbreak continues to gather pace in West Africa, with the death toll in the region now at 1,552, according to the WHO.
The Geneva-based organization said 3,069 suspected or confirmed cases had been reported in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
However, the WHO estimates the actual number of cases may be two to four times higher than currently reported.
More than 40 per cent of all cases occurred within the past three weeks, pointing to an acceleration of the infection rates in the region, WHO said.
“There is an urgent need for a protective Ebola vaccine, and it is important to establish that a vaccine is safe,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“The experimental vaccine performed extremely well in protecting nonhuman primates from Ebola infection,” Fauci added.
The trial will be conducted in healthy adults, NIH said in a statement. Trial vaccine recipients will have small amounts of Ebola genetic material introduced to their bodies, which will prompt an immune system response.
The genetic material will be introduced in a vector that will not replicate, meaning that trial participants will not become infected with Ebola.
Several parallel trials are set to start later this year.
The WHO said the average Ebola fatality rate was currently at 52 per cent in West Africa, ranging from 42 per cent in Sierra Leone to 66 per cent in Guinea.
Most Ebola infections were concentrated in the Gueckedou region of Guinea, which registered 62 per cent of all reported cases since the beginning of the outbreak in December.
Liberia’s Lofa County, bordering Guinea, had high infection rates, as did the towns of Kenema and Kailahun in Sierra Leone.
The WHO has issued an operational plan to “dramatically scale up” and better coordinate the international response to curb the outbreak.
The goal is to stop transmission of the virus within six to nine months and prevent international spread, the WHO said.
Health officials from affected countries, the African Union, development banks, United Nations agencies, aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres as well as countries providing financial support have all given their input to the agreed roadmap. It includes detailed plans for additional treatment and management centres, social mobilization and safe burials in affected countries, the WHO said. It will also address key bottlenecks, including the lack of personal protective equipment, disinfectants and body bags.
The organization will publish regular situation reports from this week that will indicate Ebola hotspots, list epidemiological data on how the outbreak is evolving and give an overview of the location of treatment facilities and laboratories in the region.
Also on Thursday, Nigeria’s Health Ministry reported an Ebola death in its oil-rich Niger Delta, the first confirmed case outside of the commercial capital Lagos.
An unnamed medical doctor died from the virus in Port Harcourt, the capital of southern River State, on August 22, Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu has told dpa.
“Following the report of the death by the doctor’s widow the next day, the case was thoroughly investigated and laboratory analysis showed that the doctor died from Ebola,” the minister said.
Health officials had placed under surveillance more than 70 people who had been in contact with the doctor and quarantined his wife, who was showing symptoms of Ebola, said Rivers State health commissioner Sampson Parker.
Ebola causes massive haemorrhaging and is transmitted through contact with blood and other bodily fluids.