The Ebola outbreak in West Africa claimed more than 10,000 lives, and researchers around the world are scrambling to be the first to come up with a lifesaving vaccine — or at least give hope.
While the outbreak has slowed significantly and the worst-affected countries have resumed regular flight schedules, it is by no means over.
Health officials continue to look for answers on how to prevent another outbreak. Clinical trials of the Ebola vaccine are underway, but there are obstacles. Here are 12 things you need to know about Ebola vaccine clinical trials in West Africa.
1. Health officials warn of another outbreak in the future
While the current Ebola outbreak is winding down, and many are optimistic about stomping out the current strain shortly, health officials have warned that another outbreak is a distinct possibility. Without a proven vaccine, there is a high likelihood another Ebola outbreak will occur.
2. Researchers are trying to reduce the duration of clinical trials
Clinical trials usually take years to complete, but researchers don’t have that kind of time with Ebola in West Africa. Researchers are trying to shorten the amount of time trials normally take in order to get a working vaccine out earlier.
3. There is enormous mistrust of the vaccine in West Africa
Like the mistrust surrounding the Ebola virus itself, many West Africans are skeptical and unwilling to support a Western-backed vaccine. Rumors have abounded, including that the Ebola vaccine was being slipped into children’s immunizations, or that the vaccine is actually infecting volunteers as a part of a government plot to squeeze money out of donors.
4. Mistrust of the Liberian government has worked against the vaccine
Many people are unwilling to trust government-backed initiatives, particularly in Liberia where the government is widely perceived to be corrupt. Mistrust of the government deepened during the Ebola outbreak. Many believed authorities were exaggerating the severity of the disease to get more money from international donors.
5. One of the trials needs 27,000 volunteers
Officials are still debating how to attract such a high number of volunteers, and what the proper monetary compensation should be. Right now, the first 600 participants in clinical trials are each given $300 over the course of 10 visits for almost a year. The money is meant to be reimbursement for transportation costs and lost wages.
6. These trials are the first time that vaccines are being tested during an outbreak
While the Ebola outbreak has subsided enormously since its peak, there are still cases being confirmed. However, the waning caseload will make it difficult to test the effectiveness of the vaccine in protecting people from contracting Ebola.
7.Illiteracy is a major obstacle in the clinical trial process
Due to low literacy and education levels coupled with language barriers, officials have been tasked with the responsibility of ensuring participants of clinical trials understand the consent forms fully. Explanations of risks and concepts that might be unfamiliar to the region have been made available in Liberian English, as well as 16 local languages.
8. The vaccine is being referred to as “Ebola prevention vaccine”
Due to misinformation, some believe that vaccines cause the disease they are meant to prevent. Therefore, officials and local leaders have begun referring to the drug as the Ebola-prevention vaccine to prevent this misunderstanding.
9. The original acronym for the study was rejected due to its relation to Liberia’s civil war
The study was originally referred to as “Sleves,” but the name was rejected after residents were reminded of Liberia’s bloody civil war. Long or short “sleeves” often referred to hacking off a victim’s hands or arms.
10. A separate vaccine study in Sierra Leone focuses on health professionals
A smaller study in Sierra Leone is being done, intending to enroll 6,000-to 8,000 volunteers who work in the health industry that are at the frontline and most often exposed to Ebola. Unlike the Liberia trial, the Sierra Leone trial will not include placebos.
11. The Guinea trials launched recently using the VSV-EBOV vaccine
The VSV-EBOV vaccine was developed by Canadian researchers and is being used in trials in Guinea. The vaccine team recently went into the Coyah district of Basse-Guinee (lower Guinea) to vaccinate contacts of patients who had been recently infected. Vaccinations will include adults, but not pregnant women. The VSV-EBOV vaccine uses the ring vaccination strategy that was used in the 1970s against smallpox.
Ring vaccination controls an outbreak by vaccinating and monitoring a ring of people around each infected individual. The idea is to form a buffer of immune individuals to prevent the spread of the disease, according to MedicineNet.
12. The WHO is still debating the merits of mass vaccination
While several clinical trials of an Ebola vaccine are underway in a multitude of places, mass vaccinations are “by no means a given,” according to World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier. An independent advisory body won’t decide until August at the earliest whether or not mass vaccinations are recommended for Ebola. The final say on introducing a vaccine will be made by ministries of health in the affected countries, according to WHO.