BAMAKO (Reuters) - Healthcare workers in Mali have been given an experimental Ebola vaccine as part of the first human trials of the shot in West Africa, where three nations are battling the worst outbreak on record.
The trials are part of a program to identify and roll out vaccines within months, compared with the years usually needed, in an effort to find a way to protect against a disease that has killed at least 3,865 people.
Three Malian health staff have been given the vaccine and 37 more are due to receive it in the coming weeks, according to a statement issued by the Center for Vaccine Development (CVD) at the University of Maryland, which is carrying out the trials with Malian counterparts.
The vaccine being tested is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline and is being developed with the U.S.-based Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Mali borders Guinea, one of three nations worst affected by Ebola, but has not had any confirmed cases yet.
“This research will give us crucial information about whether the vaccine is safe, well tolerated and capable of stimulating adequate immune responses in the highest priority target population, healthcare workers in West Africa,” Myron Levine, director of the CVD, said.
“If it works, in the foreseeable future it could help alter the dynamic of this epidemic by interrupting transmission to healthcare and other exposed front-line workers,” he said.
Further similar Phase I trials on healthy volunteers are scheduled in Gambia.
The first arm of the trials programs started in Oxford, England, in September. The Oxford study will involve 60 volunteers, while the studies in Mali and Gambia will each have 40 participants.
Charlie Weller of the Wellcome Trust, which is helping to fund the studies, said the start of the Mali and Gambia trials were essential to evaluate any differences in safety or immune response between European and West African populations.
Assuming the trials are successful, the World Health Organization hopes to begin small-scale use of the GSK vaccine as well as another one being developed by NewLink in West Africa early next year.
Another experimental Ebola vaccine from Johnson & Johnson is due to enter clinical trials in early 2015.
For now, though, medical experts say the best chances of preventing the forecasts of tens of thousands of cases of Ebola within weeks rest with breaking transmission by opening more treatment centers and ensuring the dead are properly buried so they do not infect others.
The WHO says there are no signs of Ebola being controlled in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. However, Senegal and Nigeria appear to have successfully managed cases that were identified there.
Reporting by David Lewis; Editing by Janet Lawrence