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Development of New Ebola Vaccine Considered Major Breakthrough

Medical researchers have developed a vaccine that appears to protect monkeys from the deadly Ebola and Marburg viruses. With more research, the vaccine could also be approved for human use. The vaccine is considered a major breakthrough, given the viruses' high fatality rate and potential use as bioterror agent.

Scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Public Health Agency of Canada report successful tests of a vaccine against both the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

Through a process called "reverse genetics," they removed a gene from one virus, and replaced it with non-infectious Ebola and Marburg genes, triggering the body's immune system.

Just one inoculation of this vaccine was sufficient to protect monkeys from the viruses. Tom Geisbert, of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute, explains the significance of this discovery. "You need to go in and vaccinate the population in a very short period of time," he notes. "You need a vaccine that acts fast, so that's a major breakthrough."

Since the Ebola and Marburg viruses first appeared in central Africa in the 1970's, they have killed thousands and have a fatality rate of more than 90 percent. The viruses are so lethal, researchers wear protective suits to avoid accidental infection.

"So it's not jumping on you," explains Dr. Brigitte Vasset of Doctors without Borders. "If I am here, I will not get it from you. But if I start to touch any kind of your body fluids, and I have a cut, I can get it."

Once transmitted, the viruses cause severe blood loss and shock, leading to death within days.

For decades, there was little that could be done, until now. Researchers estimate several more years of testing are needed before the vaccine can be approved for human use.

However, they also say it could be deployed much more quickly in the event of a bioterror attack. The complete study can be found in the magazine, Nature Medicine.