(Adds quote from deputy health minister)
* Scientists worry the trials may be too late
* Doctors, minister due to be vaccinated Tuesday
* Trials set to involve 27,000 volunteers
By James Harding Giahyue
MONROVIA, Feb 2 Liberia began a trial of
experimental Ebola vaccines on Monday, involving thousands of
volunteers as part of an effort to slow the spread of the deadly
haemorrhagic fever and prevent future outbreaks.
The epidemic has killed more than 8,900 people in West
Africa since it began more than a year ago, overwhelming weak
healthcare systems in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Its
spread now appears to be slowing, especially in Liberia which
has reported just 15 new cases in the past 21 days.
The trial to test two vaccines from GlaxoSmithKline
and New Link/Merck began at the government-run
Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, a cluster of cement blocks in
the teeming New Kru Town neighbourhood that was one of the first
parts of the capital to be struck by the disease.
"I do not want for Ebola to affect my family and so I have
come to volunteer," said Zolu McGill, among the first batch of
four volunteers seen at the hospital by a Reuters reporter.
Several doctors and the country's information minister Lewis
Brown plan to be vaccinated on Tuesday.
But Liberia's Deputy Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah said
he did not expect the vaccines to make a difference in the
current outbreak. "What will end this outbreak are the measures
that we are taking now - the Ebola treatment units, the contact
tracing, the engagement in the community and social
mobilisation. That is what is getting us to zero."
Scientists say the study, a final stage trial which hopes to
involve 27,000 volunteers at the heart of the epidemic after
earlier safety trials in the UK, United States and other African
countries, could be a turning point in the fight against the
deadly virus, which has no known cure.
But given relatively few new cases in the dwindling
outbreak, researchers are concerned the trial in Liberia, plus
another planned in Sierra Leone, may not have the statistical
power needed to show whether the shots work.
Volunteers will receive a small compensation package. Each
of the vaccines contains a small harmless portion of the Ebola
virus and may cause side effects in some people such as pain,
redness, fever, headaches, mouth sores, tiredness, muscle, joint
pain and loss of appetite.
The Partnership for Research on Ebola Vaccines (Prevail)
says healthy volunteers above 18 years old who have no previous
history of the virus will be selected.
HOPES OF DEFEATING EBOLA
Vice President Joseph Boakai said in a speech on Sunday
attended by dignitaries that he hoped the successful development
of drugs would prevent any other country from suffering the
devastation experienced by Liberia.
"It's our conviction that from this worthy exercise
humankind will prevail over the deadly killer of man," he said.
The slowdown in the epidemic is already hampering drug
development. Chimerix Inc said on Friday it was
stopping participation in clinical studies in Liberia of a drug,
brincidofovir, to treat people who already have Ebola, citing
the slump in new cases.
With that in mind, and looking ahead to future potential
outbreaks, scientists are thinking about how to develop and test
second-generation Ebola vaccines, which could be used to prevent
more strains of the disease than the current fast-tracked
Some scientists and aid workers are calling for trials to
begin promptly in neighbouring Sierra Leone where transmission
hotspots exist around the capital Freetown.
The U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Deborah Malac, said that
cooperation on the vaccines represented an opportunity for
greater cooperation between the two countries on clinical
research and developing the Liberian health system.
"It's fantastic that large-scale trials of the first
candidate Ebola vaccine are getting underway in Liberia, a
country that has suffered enormously at the hands of this
disease," said Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust,
which is funding a trial of the GSK vaccine in Britain and Mali.
(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London; Writing by
Emma Farge; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Sophie Walker)