WHO: several hundred thousand Ebola vaccine doses expected by mid-2015

Ebola vaccine trials could start in west Africa in December – a month earlier than formerly planned – and hundreds of thousands of doses should be ready by mid-2015, the World Health Organisation has said.

A high level meeting of government representatives, including donor countries and those affected, together with vaccine manufacturers, has decided to push ahead with unprecedented speed, even though all the early data on safety and the immune system response to the vaccines will not be in.

The first vaccinations of health workers and others at high risk, including burial teams, are likely to take place in Liberia, with Sierra Leone not far behind. But in the Liberian trial, the vaccines will be tested against placebo – some health workers will get the Ebola shot, while others will be given a vaccine that is protective against another disease, such as measles. The selection will be random and blinded, so that neither volunteers nor doctors know who has been given which vaccine until the trial ends.

The trial design has been drawn up by the United States, which wants to satisfy the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration, which licences vaccines. It has the advantage, said WHO assistant director general, Dr Marie Paule Kieny, of providing a definite result more rapidly, which would be for the good of the general community. The trial in Sierra Leone will not be against placebo.

Kieny also announced that manufacturers have promised that larger quantities of vaccines will be available than previously thought. “The companies have committed to ramp up to millions of doses to be available in 2015, with hundreds of thousands ready in the first half of the year,” she said.

“Vaccine is not the magic bullet,” she added, “but when ready, it may be a good part of the effort to turn the tide of the epidemic.”