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Powerful New Ebola Vaccine Heads To Congo To Help Stop Outbreak

A woman is vaccinated at a health center in Conakry, Guinea, during the clinical trials of a vaccine against the Ebola virus.
Cellou Binani
AFP/Getty Images
A woman is vaccinated at a health center in Conakry, Guinea, during the clinical trials of a vaccine against the Ebola virus.

When Ebola erupted in West Africa a few years ago, it was catastrophic.

But one good thing emerged from the outbreak: The development of an Ebola vaccine-- a powerful vaccine.

As we reported back in December, the vaccine is highly effective. "We were able to estimate the efficacy of the vaccine as being 100 percent in a trial," said Ira Longini, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, who helped test the vaccine. "It's very unusual to have a vaccine that protects people perfectly."

Of course, no vaccine is perfect. In the end, the efficacy is likely to sit somewhere between about 70 percent and 100 percent, Longini said. And that's enough to bring outbreaks to a screeching halt.

Now that vaccine is headed to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help fight a small outbreak there. Since late April, Congo has reported about 19 cases, the World Health Organization said.

On Monday, the Congo government agreed to use the vaccine.

"Now there's a Medecins Sans Frontiers team that is arriving [in Congo] today to validate the protocol with the technical teams," Jonathan Simba, a health ministry spokesman, told Reuters.

The outbreak already shows signs of slowing down. There hasn't been a new confirmed case since May 11. And several suspected cases were ruled out last week.

Congo has a long history fighting Ebola. Since the virus was first detected there in 1976, the country has reported seven other outbreaks. In all instances, health workers have stopped the disease by isolating infected people. This is the first outbreak since the vaccine became available.

The vaccine — called rVSV-ZEBOV — took about two decades to develop. Scientists in the U.S. and Canada started working on it back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Then it sat on the shelf for years because of lack of funding.

Toward the end of the outbreak in West Africa, scientists began testing the vaccine in a large trial with more than 4,000 people. The shot worked extremely well and had mild side effects, such as headache and muscle pain.

The vaccine hasn't been approved yet by either the World Health Organization or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That's predicted to happen sometime in 2018.

But GAVI — the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization — has already spent $5 million to help finish the development and manufacturing of the vaccine, in partnership with the pharmaceutical company Merck.

Together, they have stockpiled 300,000 doses of the vaccine. Now the challenge is getting the shot to a remote corner of Congo.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.
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