Ebola vaccine comes as outbreak subsides, holds promise for future

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Curran Lutheran Hospital was built, 1924, in Zorzor, Liberia, far away from the capital of Monrovia. With 125 beds and outpatient services, it provides critical health care for a large region and supervision for 23 community health centers and clinics. It also operates a school of nursing. Although the Ebola outbreak is subsiding and some beds are empty, the hospital still has ongoing needs for refurbishing the pediatric unit (repairing glass windows, replacing curtains, and painting the walls and ceiling); renovating the nursing station (providing a desk and medicine cabinets); improving ventilation; and, updating the ward's water systems. | Our Saviour's Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota

MONROVIA, Liberia (Christian Examiner) -- An airliner was to land this morning at the Monrovia International Airport with precious cargo: 300 doses of a vaccine for the Ebola virus.

However, with substantially subsiding numbers of new infections, it might be too late to test whether the medicine actually works.

The antiserum was developed under intense time pressure by GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals (GSK) of Great Britain and the National Institutes of Health in the United States.

"It will become harder and harder to show if the vaccine is having any impact," said Andrew Witty, chief executive for GSK. The pace of development was "almost unparalleled," he told the BBC, and was undertaken at the expense of other work.

"As an example," Witty said, "we have delayed two other vaccine development programs to free up the space to do this work, so this has come with a significant amount of disruption."

The company hopes to immunize 30,000 volunteers "in the next few weeks," according to the BBC, including health care workers.

But a "turning point" in the disease has taken place in recent days in the three most-stricken nations: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The number of incidents is falling in all three countries, World Health Organization officials said.

Last September, 509 new cases a week were being seen in Liberia alone. Last week: eight new cases.

So it will be difficult to determine if the trial doses had any effect in preventing infections.

"The incidence is pretty clearly going down in all three countries now," Christopher Dye M.D., director of strategy in WHO's director general's office, told the BBC. However, he added, there was "no basis for complacency" because of the risk of a resurgence in cases.

There needs to be improvement in contact tracing, officials said, because a single case is enough to start an entire outbreak. That is how the latest Ebola scourge started: a 2-year-old boy playing in a hollow tree trunk inhabited by fruit bats. He died in December 2013 but a diagnosis of Ebola was not made until March 2014. By then Ebola had spread to three nations in West Africa.

To date, 21,724 people have been infected; 8,641 have died, according to WHO statistics.