When will an Ebola vaccine be ready?
With Ebola raging in west Africa and fear growing on other continents, our limited ability to treat this lethal virus has become an increasing public health issue. Can Ebola be halted in a way that does not rely on ineffective treatment practices? Competing pharmaceutical companies have been working to develop an Ebola vaccine and are now in human trials.
Kat Arney spoke to Eleanor Malone, the editor of pharmaceutical analysis news source SCRIPintelligence, who updated her about the progress being made with vaccines...
Eleanor - We're at a very early stage - phase one testing which is safety testing in humans after animal testing. So that vaccine and another one that's slightly ahead of that by GlaxoSmithKline and the American National Institutes of Health are both in humans. They've done well in small numbers of monkeys. They stopped the monkeys catching the virus and the ones that were exposed who hadn't had the vaccine died. So, that's promising.
Kat - Yeah, I'd say.
Eleanor - At the moment, they're phase one testing in relatively small numbers of people, healthy volunteers. But yeah, we're still quite at an early stage. The good news is that they kind of accelerated the trial process. So, the next stage would be efficacy testing and then there'll be bigger trials. All of the data is being fed back to the regulators and advice is coming through and the data from different vaccines is being shared in a way that the pharmaceutical industry wouldn't normally share data. So hopefully, we'll have good safety data by the end of this year and go into efficacy testing maybe even by the end of this year as well.
Kat - So, these trials right now, they're just checking basically, "It's safe and you can give it to people"?
Eleanor - Yeah.
Kat - And the pharmaceutical industry is quite known for being very slow with trials. It takes a long time to get through all the regulatory process. We're right now in a crisis situation in west Africa. You say there might be safety data coming along the line. How soon do you think it could be before larger trials are available, maybe testing how effective it is or even a vaccine coming on to the market?
Eleanor - Actually, quite soon - by the end of this year or early next year we should see the efficacy testing if all goes well. They're also already working on scaling up the production so that they could have tens of thousands of doses available quite soon and make and moving into hundreds of thousands of doses if all goes well in the first half of next year. And then the efficacy testing will be out in west Africa.
Kat - Who would be the priority for these vaccines?
Eleanor - Well at the moment, it's the healthcare workers. I think it depends quite a lot on what we get from the data because there are certain groups of people for whom this may not work or may be dangerous - HIV infected people, children, pregnant women. There are large numbers of these people in west Africa, so we have to see what the data are.
Kat - And it does seem like this has happened extremely quickly. Is it that maybe it's been particularly easy to develop the viruses or are there other factors at work?
Eleanor - I think they're not the most difficult vaccines to develop, but there has not been an economic incentive in the past to develop a vaccine for Ebola, partly because it's in Africa and also because hardly, anyone has ever had it. But things are definitely speeding up with huge attention and public money going into this and also, the companies have stepped up in the last few months. They're collaborating with each other, they've put their own money into it, and they're not going to make money on it.
Kat - It does seem like quite a nice thing for the world to get behind.
Eleanor - It's amazing, yeah.
Kat - It's a good story from the pharmaceutical industry.
Eleanor - Yeah, if we can learn from this and apply it to other diseases, it would be fantastic.
Kat - We've talked about three vaccines that are heading into trials at the moment. What about other vaccine approaches or even treatments that might actually get rid of the virus once people have it?
Eleanor - There are various other vaccines at earlier stages. Our databases have around 20 or more products in kind of pre-clinical early stage development. And so, the treatment approaches are quite varied, all still very early stage. There's monoclonal antibodies, various viral treatments like an approved flu treatment which could be used.
Kat - Because flu is a virus as well.
Eleanor - Yeah, it may work. And some of them are good because they're easy to administer or they're already manufactured in sufficient numbers. So, that makes it better, but they're not looking as effective. Other are very difficult to make or unpleasant to administer.