So where are we with the search for an Ebola vaccine?
An article by Paul Howard, the director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Medical Progress, gives a useful update to our overview of the fight against Ebola. Howard looks specifically at the progress towards a vaccine, which he says is the best hope of stopping it – and our best hope of that lies with the US. As Howard writes: "If Uncle Sam doesn’t shell out the money to help develop and then buy an Ebola vaccine, no one else will."
If the virus continues on its current trajectory, our best hope to stop it lies in the development of a successful vaccine. Vaccines against Ebola have been tested on macaque monkeys since the 1990s. After 9/11, the U.S. began investing heavily in Ebola research, concerned about the virus’s potential as a bioweapon. Various pieces of legislation, including Project BioShield in 2004 (reauthorized in 2013), and billions of federal dollars have been focused on financing the development and stockpiling of “medical countermeasures” against likely agents of bioterrorism—including hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Marburg.
The good news is we might have a vaccine by next year.
Johnson & Johnson is partnering with a Danish company to produce its own vaccine. Unlike GSK’s vaccine, J&J’s prototype requires two vaccinations, but may provide longer-lasting immunity. Even more promising, J&J has suggested that it could have 250,000 doses of its vaccine produced in 2015, a massive accomplishment (if it works). Pfizer and other companies have stepped up to partner with those firms to share production facilities.
The bad news is that it might not be enough to stop the disease's spread in many places.
Health authorities worry they might not be able to distribute an effective vaccine widely enough to halt Ebola’s spread in the most severely stricken regions. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, University of Western Australia medical microbiologist Tim Inglis, has called on Australia to stop panicking about the disease and lend a hand.
He and his team are preparing to test a mobile lab in the tropical conditions of northern Western Australia in the coming weeks and hopes to be working in West Africa by the end of the year.
He argues in Nature that the best defence for developed countries is to act now rather than risk waiting when the crisis could be far worse.
The threat posed by a few imported cases of Ebola is low: Australia has the procedures, resources and facilities here to minimize the risk of secondary transmission. And other developed countries are willing to accept that risk because they understand the crucial and urgent need to tackle the outbreak in Africa. Mathematical models predict that transmission will continue for many months, even if the rate of expansion levels out soon. The large number of infections clearly increases the probability of exports and that the virus's genome will continue to mutate. The real issue is that the threat to Australia, the United States and other developed countries will be much higher in six months. The best defence is to act now and in Africa.
Most Australian scientists agree. As Dr Jennifer Todd is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Health & Society at the University of Wollongong says:
"...containing the virus is the only way we will keep it from jumping to other countries via wild secondary cases, or mutating virus. We must move not at bureaucratic speed, but at viral speed if we have any hope of staying ahead of this pathogen."
But Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, the Director of Endocrinology at the Flinders University School of Medicine and the Executive Director of biotech firm Vaxine is not quite on the same page. He wonders if there is value in studying the disease on the frontline and just what Inglis intends to do there.
"I am not entirely sure how basing more 'scientists' at the front line is necessarily going to help, and certainly supporting such a team is going to consume local resources that might be directed elsewhere, but partly this is because the article doesn't explain what exactly Tim proposes to do in his mobile laboratory that is likely to impact on the overall Ebola crisis. If we knew what exactly was intended and the object of the exercise, then the risk–benefit equation may be more clearly in favour of benefit. Without such an explanation this proposal is likely to be considered by many foolhardy. Nevertheless it is a brave step into an unknown world, and definitely a good topic for discussion.