Ebola jab stockpile set to fight outbreaks

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A girl is getting inoculated with an Ebola vaccine on November 22, 2019 in Goma. AFP

A global emergency stockpile of 500,000 Ebola jab doses will be created to respond quickly to future outbreaks, the vaccine alliance Gavi said on January 12.

Low- and lower middle-income countries will be able to access the stockpile free of charge, Gavi said, and will also get support for the operational costs of rolling out an immunisation programme.

More than 300,000 people were vaccinated during outbreaks of the deadly virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu and Ituri provinces, which helped bring the two-year crisis to a halt in June 2020.

Gavi CEO Seth Berkley said: “By creating a stockpile of 500,000 doses of the Ebola vaccine, available to all countries, we can help prevent loss of life and swiftly end Ebola outbreaks in the future.”

The doses will be stored in Basel, Switzerland.

A public-private partnership, the Geneva-based Gavi helps vaccinate half the world’s children against some of the deadliest diseases on the planet.

Along with the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is co-leading efforts to procure and distribute Covid-19 vaccines to 20 per cent of the population in each country by the end of the year.

Development of the Ebola vaccine was sped up following the worst-ever epidemic, which started in December 2013 in Guinea and spread to West African neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The outbreak claimed more than 11,300 lives from nearly 29,000 registered cases, according to the WHO, which declared the epidemic over in March 2016.

The sped-up vaccine process, which involved agreements between Gavi and the manufacturer, “set a precedent for fast-tracking development and production of vaccines against Covid-19”, said Berkley.

The average fatality rate from Ebola is around 50 per cent but this can rise to 90 per cent for some epidemics, says the WHO.

The symptoms are severe – high fever and muscle pain followed by vomiting and diarrhoea, skin eruptions, kidney and liver failure, internal and external bleeding.

The Ebola vaccine stockpile will include licensed doses manufactured by US pharmaceutical multinational Merck, which has pre-qualification status from the WHO, plus approval from the US and European regulators.

Those deliveries are being funded with $20 million from the US for International Development (USAID).

A Gavi spokeswoman said it would take “a few years” to reach the 500,000 target, and the doses will need replenishing over time.

Besides the Merck doses, other potential Ebola jabs in the pipeline could eventually be included in the stockpile, subject to WHO pre-qualification.

Ebola haemorrhagic fever was first identified in 1976 after scientists probed a string of unexplained deaths in what is now northern DRC.

The virus that causes Ebola is believed to reside in bats.