UNITED STATES, Oct 21 – Ebola vaccine testing could start in the next few weeks, the World Health Organization said Tuesday, as health officials scramble to quell the virus that has killed more than 4,500 people. The goal is to launch vaccine trials in West Africa by January, said Dr. Marie Paule Kieny, WHO’s assistant director general for health systems and innovation.
It’s not clear when vaccines could be distributed to the masses. That won’t be determined until after the testing results come in. “There is no vaccine that has no side effects at all,” Kieny said. But she said it will be impossible to get sick with Ebola from the vaccines because they do not contain enough of the virus’ genetic material.
The initial vaccine tests will be available to volunteers in countries such as Mali, the United States and England, Kieny said. “It will be open to the general public. It can be you, me,” she told reporters Tuesday. When the testing reaches West Africa, candidates could include relatives of infected Ebola patients, Kieny said.
Debate over experimental drugs
WHO said it is also visiting sites in the three countries most devastated by Ebola — Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia — to see which treatment centers could participate in the testing of experimental Ebola drugs. But there is debate raging among medical ethicists about the drug trials — namely, whether to use placebos in testing.
While some say placebos are necessary to gauge the effectiveness of drugs, others say it’s unethical to withhold treatment for a disease with a mortality rate of about 50%.
CDC gives new guidelines
The news from WHO comes a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated Ebola guidelines Monday, focusing on better protecting health care workers. CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden stressed the importance of more training and supervision and said that no skin should be exposed when workers are wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE.
“We’re increasing the margin of safety with a real consensus guideline that has three key changes. One, training, practicing — demonstrated hands-on experience so that the health care workers are comfortable donning and doffing PPE. Two, no skin exposure. Three, observation of every single step, putting on and taking off the PPE,” Frieden said.