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The head of the World Health Organization praised Guineans on Thursday for their role in helping to develop a vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus, as Guinea’s president said he hoped the vaccine eventually could be produced in Africa.
During a visit to the country where the deadliest Ebola epidemic ever first emerged, Dr. Margaret Chan met with health workers who were critical in the fight against the virus. More than 11,300 people died across West Africa before the outbreak was finally declared over last year.
Chan said Guineans had “fought back” by taking part in the vaccine trials despite the widespread fear of international health workers that was prevalent during the Ebola crisis. With no specific drugs approved to treat Ebola, patients could only be isolated and the death rate was high.
The Ebola virus first turned up on the continent in 1976 and had caused periodic outbreaks mostly in central Africa before the West Africa epidemic began in 2013. Previous attempts at a vaccine failed, in part due to the sporadic nature of outbreaks and funding shortages.
The West African epidemic allowed researchers to test the vaccine’s efficacy on about 5,800 people, all of whom had some contact with an Ebola patient. The vaccine, which contains no live virus, proved so effective that the study was stopped midway so that everyone exposed to Ebola in Guinea could be immunized.
WHO, which has acknowledged shortcomings in its response to the Ebola outbreak, led the study of the vaccine. The vaccine was developed by the Canadian government and is now licensed to the U.S.-based Merck & Co. Merck is expected to seek regulatory approval in the U.S. and Europe sometime next year.
Chan said the efforts to create an Ebola vaccine in months, not years, created a “spillover effect” that will help speed up the development of other vaccines. A new coalition is putting together a system to help ensure “that price is not a barrier to access for populations most in need,” she said.