LONDON (Reuters) - Europe is to plow 200 million euros ($250 million) into the development of Ebola vaccines, as well as drugs and diagnostic tests, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.
The funding is set to be announced this week under the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a public-private scheme jointly paid for by the pharmaceuticals industry and the European Commission.
The move shows how momentum is building to get medical interventions — and particularly vaccines — to West Africa as soon as possible to control the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, which, according to official figures, has killed nearly 5,000 people, most of them in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
World Health Organization (WHO) figures suggest the real death toll is as many as 15,000.
Much of the money is likely to be used to help finance large-scale clinical trials of three experimental vaccines, the sources said.
Under the plan, the European Commission is to contribute 100 million euros, with drug companies belonging to the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations contributing a similar amount in staff time, goods and services.
One source said the IMI project would also help galvanize knowledge and capacity sharing in a major way.
Earlier on Wednesday, two of the world’s leading drugmakers, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson , said they would collaborate between themselves and with other companies to help speed vaccine development.
The European Medicines Agency said it was ready to start assessment of Ebola vaccines and drugs as soon as data was made available, after establishing a form of rolling review to speed up the process.
There is no proven drug or vaccine against Ebola and companies have been wary in the past of pouring resources into fighting the deadly disease as previous outbreaks have been smaller-scale.
What is more, outbreaks of the virus have so far centered on impoverished regions in Africa, further undermining any commercial incentive to invest in the field.
But the scale of the epidemic now gripping parts of West Africa has prompted health experts and drugmakers alike to look at fast-tracking potential drug and vaccine candidates, leading to an unprecedented rush to develop products.
Travelers from West Africa have infected two people in Texas and one in Madrid.
Clinical tests on a vaccine from GSK and another from NewLink Genetics are already under way, while human tests on a J&J vaccine will start in January.
The WHO hopes that tens of thousands of people in West Africa, including frontline healthcare workers, can start receiving Ebola vaccines from January as part of large-scale clinical trials.
Clinical testing will also be required through 2015 to check that vaccine candidates are effective and safe to use in people who may be at risk of infection but are perfectly healthy.
Those trials will costs tens of millions of dollars to run and, if successful, further investment will still be needed to scale up production facilities and complex supply-chain infrastructure.
With a total budget of 3.3 billion euros for the period 2014 to 2024, Europe’s IMI scheme is the world’s biggest public-private-partnership in the life sciences arena.
It was launched in 2008 and has 46 ongoing projects, some of which are focused on specific health issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and obesity. Others involve work on broader challenges in drug development.
Additional reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Louise Ireland