After a 2014 Ebola scare on U.S. soil, more people are paying attention to the deadly disease than ever. That includes leading drug manufacturer Merck & Co. Thanks to a newly developed vaccine, aid workers can combat the Ebola outbreak that has been ravaging the Congo since August.
The World Health Organization has reported that the new vaccine is 97.5 percent effective at immunizing recipients against the virus. Over 135,000 people have received it so far. Now, officials fear that there is not enough of the vaccine to go around.
While Ebola isn’t a new virus, it has reared its head multiple times in the past few decades. Meanwhile, shows like National Geographic’s “The Hot Zone” demonstrate just how easy it would be for an epidemic to start in populated countries like the United States.
Currently, the disease is causing havoc in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So far, 1,625 infected people have died, making this the second deadliest Ebola epidemic ever. A previous outbreak, spanning from 2014 to 2016, claimed the lives of over 11,000 people in West Africa and Guinea.
The Ebola virus easily spreads from animals to humans. Once a person is infected, the disease is extremely contagious. People can contract Ebola through contact with bodily fluids, contaminated objects, or by touching deceased victims.
Thankfully, aid workers fighting the current outbreak have a secret weapon: the new Ebola vaccine that didn’t exist last time.
Interestingly, the vaccine hasn’t seen approval through clinical trials. Though highly unprecedented, the Congolese government approved the experimental medicine because no other options are available. Officials grant exceptions on a “compassionate basis.” This practice allows sick people to use an unapproved drug in dire circumstances when no other options exist.
Despite not yet passing clinical trials, the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine has shown promising results. As such, 97.5 percent of those treated now have immunity against the virus. Still, researchers need to conduct more lab testing before the vaccine is officially approved for use in other countries.
“There’s a tremendous parallel effort ongoing to review the dossier and to attempt to achieve licensure as quickly as possible, particularly for the African countries that are at risk,” says Dr. Beth-Ann Coller, the leader of Merck’s Ebola vaccine development program.
Aside from the vaccine, the best available Ebola treatment is hydration. Since the virus causes widespread bleeding and fluid loss, patient survival requires continual hydration. Only then can the immune system start a counter-attack against the virus. However, researchers are always looking for new treatment methods.
Overall, the success of Merck’s vaccine in the current emergency also raises questions about whether tedious testing may be hindering life-saving treatments. While testing is crucial to ensuring safety, situations like this illustrate the potentially significant remedies that are stuck in holding somewhere within the FDA. With the outstanding threat of a global Ebola epidemic, research teams should push effective treatments to the forefront of testing to ensure they are licensed and ready for use should a U.S. outbreak occur.