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UK and Canada race to develop first Ebola vaccine


News that vaccines to fight Ebola are being developed on both sides of the Atlantic has grabbed global media headlines as the world stands on the precipice of an epidemic. But which laboratory will be the first to get it to market?


In recent days the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cited two experimental vaccines that have showed promising results when they were tested on lab monkeys.

Both could one day help eradicate Ebola. The current outbreak has claimed more than 4,500 lives, mostly in West Africa.

The first candidate vaccine has been named VSV-EBOV by scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Canada, and will be licensed by the US firm NewLink Genetics.

“We began working on this vaccine 10 years ago,” a spokesman for Canada’s health ministry, or Health Canada, told FRANCE 24 on Sunday by telephone.

The second vaccine is being developed by British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in cooperation with the US National Institutes of Health. It is based on a strain of the so-called chimp adenovirus type 3, or ChAd3.

800 key vials

With the two experimental drugs at similar stages of trials, it is difficult to predict which one will be available first, but the race is most definitely on.

The Canadian government said over the weekend that it would ship 800 vials of VSV-EBOV to the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva starting this week.

After successful trials on animals, the Public Health Agency of Canada began administering the drug to 40 human volunteers in the State of Maryland in the United States in early October.

“The phase 1 clinical trials will reveal whether the vaccine is safe enough to be used on a preventative basis on humans who have not contracted the virus,” the Canadian spokesman said in reference to the experiments with humans, which should be completed by December.

“The tests also help determine the appropriate dosage needed to immunize populations,” noted Gregory Taylor, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, insisting there was no risk of human volunteers becoming accidentally infected with Ebola.

Taylor added that if the phase 1 trials are successful, a new round of testing could begin “on a larger scale and in countries affected by the epidemic.”

No marketing before 2016?

For its part, GloxoSmithKline said this weekend that its own phase 1 trials were “progressing at an unprecedented rate” with tests in the US, the UK and Mali.

If current experiments proved successful, the next phase could see the vaccination of healthcare workers at the frontline of the epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia in early 2015, the company said in a statement.

However, a GSK researcher also warned that word health officials should not rely on his or any other group’s vaccine as the “primary answer” in solving the current Ebola crisis.

"We have to be able to manufacture the vaccine at doses that would be consistent with general use and that's going to take well into 2016," Doctor Ripley Ballou, head of GSK's Ebola vaccine research unit, told BBC radio in an interview on Friday.

“In order for the vaccine to be used, we have to have data on its safety and its efficacy and those data will not be available before the end of 2015.

“Unfortunately it's not going to be as quickly as we would like,” Ballou added “In retrospect we should have pulled the trigger earlier.”

A frantic race

Besides the sobering warning from GSK’s top Ebola scientist, other specialists have also raised the alarm over what could become a frantic pharmaceutical race to find an Ebola vaccine.

“The consequences of unforeseen harm, both to patients and public trust, from premature or ill-advised widespread use of an experimental therapy that proves unsafe could be substantial and jeopardize both the outbreak response and efforts to develop treatments,” Doctor Jesse L. Goodman said in August.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Georgetown University disease specialist warned that governments and health officials should not lose sight of high quality medical care, and building better health infrastructure globally.

Still, the urgency of the current Ebola outbreak and the prospect of eventually selling thousands, perhaps millions, of vaccines in Africa and across the world remains a powerful driver for drug researchers.

US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson announced last month that its Ebola vaccine programme based in Denmark was being accelerated in order to allow for clinical trials on humans in early 2015.

Beijing has already dispatched several planeloads of medical material and aid teams to the three worst affected countries, and at least one Chinese pharmaceutical firm is among those working on a vaccine.

Meanwhile, Moscow announced on October 11 that Russian scientists would be able to provide not one but three Ebola vaccines within six months.

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