Ebola is an often-deadly virus that has plagued Africa since it was discovered in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) in 1976. Nearly 13,000 have died since then, most of them gruesomely with extreme hemorrhaging from all bodily orifices. The deadliest season for Ebola was the 2014 outbreak which devastated Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, killing 11,000 people. Many attempts to create a vaccine have been attempted before, but the mortality rate of the 2014 outbreak was horrifying enough to spur scientists to make the push once again.
Fortunately, it looks like the latest attempt may have succeeded. The Lancet reported that an experimental vaccine is showing 100% effectiveness against Ebola. The vaccine, developed by Merck, was tested from March 2015 through January 2016 in West Africa. The vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV is a recombinant replication-competent vesicular stomatitis virus-based vaccine tailored to fight the Zaire strain of the disease. In plain English, that means it’s good at surrounding and strangling the virus.
It isn’t a perfect solution; there’s no way to know how long its protection lasts, and many who received the vaccine reported side effects such as headaches and joint pain. Also, it’s only effective against the Zaire strain, which is only one of the five known strains. The other common strain is the Sudan strain.
The vaccine hasn’t been approved for use by any regulatory agency, but it’s so effective that scientists have created a stockpile of 300,000 vaccines in case of a future outbreak. The vaccine was first developed over a decade ago by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the United States Army and is now licensed to Merck. Merck got a huge boost in funding the vaccine in late 2014 when the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, voted to spend up to $390 million funding 12 million doses of an Ebola vaccine. Several vaccines were possibilities at that point but none had been fully tested on people. When Merck’s proved promising, Gavi gave $5 million to produce 300,000 doses. There is no consensus on how large the stockpile will grow to be, since Merck must now get approval for the vaccine from the World Health Organization.
In the meantime, a different Ebola vaccine is being developed by GSK that also shows promise for use as a routine vaccine. It relies on two shots instead of one. The first shot has an Ebola protein attached to a chimpanzee virus that will infect the vaccinated person with Ebola without harming them. The second shot uses a weakened or attenuated virus similar to the one used in the smallpox vaccine. This helps stimulate the vaccinated person’s body to create antibodies.
Time and more testing will tell which vaccine is more useful, but either way, Ebola could turn out to be a worry of the past for Africa.
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