Will the goal of an Ebola vaccine be realized in 2015?

It's exactly a month today since Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) put out a statement on the first phase 1 trial results of a candidate Ebola vaccine.

Commenting on the results, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chairman of Global Vaccines at GSK said: “We are very encouraged by these positive first trial results showing this type of vaccine has an acceptable safety profile and can produce an immune response against Ebola in humans."

The release also said further data from ongoing phase 1 trials in the United States of America, United Kingdom, Mali and Switzerland were expected by the end of 2014.

“If the combined data from these trials are positive, the next phases of the clinical trial programme will begin in early 2015 to see whether the immune response we are seeing in phase 1 actually translates into providing people in affected countries with meaningful protection against Ebola," the statement said.

Phase 3 trials will involve the vaccination of thousands of volunteers, including frontline healthcare workers in affected countries, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, and possibly Guinea.


"Ebola emerged nearly four decades ago. Why are clinicians still empty-handed, with no vaccines and no cure?" 



That question was asked 9 weeks ago by Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), at the Regional Committee for Africa in Cotonou, Benin. Chan's answer went like this:


Because Ebola has historically been confined to poor African nations. The R&D incentive is virtually non-existent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay. WHO has been trying to make this issue visible for ages. Now people can see for themselves.


This week the Guardian reported that Professor Peter Piot, who helped discover Ebola in 1976, warned the current outbreak will not be brought under control unless there is a vaccine.

In the same interview, Piot also saw striking parallels:

In 1996, antiretroviral drugs became available for people with HIV, but it took about 10 years before they were on the agenda for Africa. “It became a bit of an obsession for me to bring down the price. It took a good five years before the money was coming in. So the way I look at it is very coloured by my Aids experience.”


Six months ago, NPR's Richard Harris covered the story "Why Is There No Drug To Treat Ebola?" for Morning Edition. Steve Inskeep was the host.

Harris said:

"Most drug companies are interested in drugs that will treat millions of people. And if you think about it, you know, it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a drug. So you're talking about a drug that would be ridiculously expensive, on top of the fact that the people who are getting sick and dying are poor people who have no money at all, essentially.

Inskeep responded:

And they're loss of interest to for-profit companies. 



Ebola's interest to for-profit companies wasn't the only topic that made the headlines. Many people wondered why Thomas Eric Duncan died when several other Ebola patients treated in the United States survived. 


Duncan received experimental medicine on October 4 -- six days after admission to the hospital. His family claimed bias. arguing it took too long for him to receive the experimental drug, CNN reported. It was a far longer wait than four other Ebola patients treated in the United States. Those patients -- two each at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital and the University of Nebraska Medical Center -- got experimental medicine immediately. They're all U.S. citizens; Duncan was a Liberian.

So, have Ebola 
researchers knowingly failed to treat patients appropriately? What's the regulation on the protection of participants in clinical studies? 

Commenting on her Facebook wall Friday, Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden drew on a striking historical parallel:


"In 1932, the United States government began a study called the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male". At that time, no treatment for Syphilis was available and the study aimed to observe how Syphilis progressed over years in six hundred infected black males until it killed them. However, in 1945, Penicillin was proven as a treatment for Syphilis and it started to be given to Syphilis patients to treat them.
Naturally, it could be expected that the 600 subjects of the Tuskegee Syphilis study would have been given penicillin to cure them but SHOCKINGLY, not only were these black males not given penicillin but a U.S. government policy was implemented for the black males to be DENIED treatment of the penicillin so as for the study to continue to examine the untreated progress of the Syphilis infection in black males until they died. The American government even put in place a policy to ensure when the men finally died, their corpses were subjected to a thorough post-mortem so as to see how badly Syphilis had damaged their bodies when they died.
Thankfully, in 1972, a whistleblower leaked the unethical activities to the press and the government was forced to terminate the study with financial damages paid out to those affected. President Bill Clinton later apologised from the White House.
Against this backdrop, I am now fast-forwarding to present day West Africa. I am pondering thus:

WHAT IF THERE NOW EXISTS A DRUG [OR DRUGS] TO CURE EBOLA BUT FOR CERTAIN REASONS, SOME PEOPLE IN SOME PLACES DO NOT WANT EBOLA TO END JUST YET IN WEST AFRICA?

All the negative socio-political and socio-economic consequences of Ebola is mainly because it has no known therapeutic cure. If, like Syphilis, a cure exists for Ebola, it means we will no longer be this frightened of this merciless Ebola and our now-damaged countries can start rebuilding faster. So, is there a cure for Ebola out there?

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Glaxo Smith Kline's head of research said earlier this year that even if the human trial is successful, a vaccine wouldn't be available until 2016.

But on Thursday, Dec. 25, Xinhua announced that the Chinese military has developed and will test an Ebola vaccine on humans this month, according to a defense ministry spokesman.

Spokesman Yang Yujun said at a regular press briefing that the vaccine had been developed by a research team at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

"The vaccine has recently passed appraisal by state and military authorities and will begin clinical tests in December," Yang said.

Yang said the China-developed Ebola vaccine was the third one to have been put into clinical tests in the world. It is also the world's first 2014-genetic mutation Ebola vaccine.

Yang said that since September, the Chinese military had sent some 300 medical personnel and specialists to Sierra Leone and Liberia in eastern Africa to help control the epidemic.

He said the Chinese medical teams had worked closely with the World Health Organization (WHO), Doctors Without Borders (MSF), local governments and the UN peace keeping force in Liberia to jointly combat the spread of the deadly disease.

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