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Governments, Competitors Cooperate to Produce Ebola Vaccine

  • Carol Pearson

The worst Ebola outbreak in history is in its second year, and scientists around the world are working to develop a vaccine against the virus. Since December of 2013, when the Ebola outbreak began in West Africa, the World Health Organization reports more than 20,000 people have been infected with the virus, and of those, more than 8,000 people have died.

These researchers are working on a vaccine that could be among the first to be used in West Africa's Ebola epidemic. This laboratory near Rome is owned by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, or GSK.

Several teams are working on Ebola vaccines. All say they have sped up the production process because of the urgent need and the number of lives at risk. In November, GSK said the first trial of this vaccine was well-tolerated and produced an immune response in all of the 20 healthy adult volunteers who received it.

The GSK vaccine promotes the production of antibodies and also triggers an immune response of certain cells which destroy infected cells. Dr. Riccardo Cortese heads this laboratory.

"The Ebola virus can't be kept under control by a vaccine that stimulates antibodies only. There is solid evidence that traditional vaccines are not enough. Our vaccine. instead, also stimulates another important branch of the immune system, the one that stimulates killer T cells that are able to recognize infected cells. The combination between two strategies is effective against Ebola," said Cortese.

GSK says more trials are still needed before the vaccine will be ready for widespread use.

Merck, another pharmaceutical giant, announced it is resuming trials of a vaccine known by the code name VSV-ZEBOV. A trial of this vaccine was suspended December 11, 2014, after some of the volunteers reported having mild joint pain. Trials are continuing with a lower dose of the potential vaccine.

The situation in West Africa has created unusual partnerships. At a recent forum in Washington, Dr. Julie Gerberding, the president of Merck, said even rival pharmaceutical companies are working together.

"There are some very special partnerships that are going on here. And one of them is the partnership between the people who are traditionally competitors," said Gerberding.

Several potential vaccines are being developed and are now in clinical trials. This increases the possibility of developing at least one that is effective against Ebola. And if more than one is effective, so much the better. It would increase the chances of that large numbers of people could be immunized, and bring the outbreak to an end. It could also mean there would never again be another Ebola epidemic as bad as this one.

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