Ebola, while not the most widespread viral infection, has certainly become one of the most notorious of the 21st century since the first major outbreak in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013. Now, there is a chance of consigning Ebola to the past, among the litany of other ills like smallpox, measles and polio that have faced the full might of human ingenuity and been mostly eradicated.
On November 11th 2019, the world’s first Ebola vaccine to be approved for widespread use was signed off by European regulators; this marks the first time that any immunisation effort against the disease has passed this important hurdle in drug development. It has already been rolled out across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), saving hundreds of thousands of lives. This announcement means that controlling outbreaks of the deadly virus will be much easier now it has been approved for use worldwide.
Ebola virus disease is a serious viral infection originating in sub-Saharan Africa. Infected patients will typically develop a high temperature, headache and sore throat, as well as severe pain and weakness in the joints and muscles. Diarrhoea, vomiting and bleeding follow. These symptoms develop rapidly, often within 2-21 days of being infected. The disease is spread by contact with blood, bodily fluids or organs of already-infected people. The Ebola virus disease is often fatal, with a survival rate of around 50%, due to low blood pressure from fluid loss. The 2013 outbreak in West Africa killed over 11,000 people, and a more recent outbreak in the Congo (with 2,000 casualties) has been declared a world health emergency.
In August 2019, two Ebola drugs in development were so effective (with a survival rate of 90%) that the treatments were made available to anyone in the DRC who was infected with the virus.
Sabue Mulangu, drug trial investigator and infectious-disease researcher in Kinshasa, commented at the time:
It’s really good news…more than 90% of people survive if they come into the [Ebola treatment unit] early and get this treatment
One of the drugs, REGN-EB3 is a cocktail of 3 monoclonal antibodies (immune cells) targeting Ebola. The other, mAB114, is derived from a single antibody taken from the blood of a Congolese person who survived Ebola in 1995. These treatments have recently been submitted to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for approval.
Now, the decision by the EMA to allow the U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck to market its own immunisation means that the product can now be stockpiled and distributed across Africa. Merck’s vaccine was first patented back in 2003 and is marketed under the name Ervebo. It, too offered a high level of protection against Ebola sufferers in a 2015 study. Further tests are underway to determine exactly how long the vaccine’s protection lasts, if it requires a booster shot later on, and whether it can also prevent (not just cure) the disease. If so, plans are being made to offer them to health workers in Ebola-stricken regions so they are adequately protected.
The recent announcement by the WHO “pre-qualifying” the Merck Ebola vaccine essentially gives their guarantee of a high standard of quality, safety and efficacy in this new treatment. It is this endorsement by the UN that is so highly sought-after by drug companies developing new products, and signals that we are one step further ahead in the deadly fight against Ebola.