Uganda and WHO to Test Vaccine Candidates to Combat Country’s Ebola Outbreak
Health workers at the Madudu Health Center meet with Mohamed Fall, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern & Southern Africa.

On Friday, the Ebola taskforce of Kassanda district in Uganda delivered the remains of four people that succumbed to the the virus for burial to their home village of Kitongo.

Three of the bodies belong to family members who died from exposure to the virus after they exhumed a loved one they had lost to Ebola the week before so they could rebury the body based on local religious traditions.

Authorities insist the outbreak is under control. But despite its relatively limited spread, the deadly Sudan strain of Ebola continues to take a tragic toll on villages and families around the country – because there is currently no authorized vaccine against that particular Ebola virus strain.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO), Uganda and a number of other international partners have announced plans to launch clinical trials of several promising vaccine candidates, in an effort to halt the deadly outbreak. 

The trials will be conducted with the support of Uganda´s Makarere University, as well as with Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI) and the Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), the partners said in a joint statement.

Embedding research into outbreak response

¨By embedding research at heart of the outbreak response, we can achieve two goals: to evaluate potentially efficacious candidate vaccines, and to potentially contribute to end this outbreak, and protect populations at risk in the future,¨ the statement said.

¨The Ministry of Health has designated the Makerere University Lung Institute to conduct vaccine and therapeutics clinical trials. A Principal investigator from Makerere University Lung Institute will lead the vaccine trial.¨

WHO, CEPI and Gavi are providing support to ensure that sufficient doses of candidate vaccines are available for the trial and beyond, the statemend added. ¨The aim of the vaccine trial would be to establish how effective the candidate vaccines are in diverse populations.¨

The vaccine candidates are being made available through the University of Oxford and the Serum Institute of India, the Sabin Vaccine Institute and the US government institutions Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and MSD, the statement added.

Outbreak has spread to the capital

Following the declaration of the outbreak in the country on 20 September, the virus has spread to seven districts, including the Ugandan capital of Kampala, thereby increasing the risks of further spread within the country and across borders. The Ministry of Health has confirmed 131 cases, 56 recoveries, and 48 deaths to date.

There is currently no known vaccine for the Sudan strain of Ebola – and thus the outbreak represents a window of opportunity to bridge that gap.  A similar strategy was tested in the deadly outbreaks of the Zaire strain of Ebola that ripped through West Africa in 2014-2016, followed by an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018-2020.  In both cases, the deployment of vaccine candidates, which ultimately were approved by regulatory agencies, eventually helped squash the outbreaks.  

“We are doing what we can with experimental options, and there are vaccines in clinical trials that we hope to deploy soon,” Dr Henry Kyobe Bosa, national incident manager for Ebola for Uganda’s Ministry of Health wrote in the New York Times on Thursday. “This outbreak is a test of how much faster we can secure vaccine access this time around [compared to the early days of COVID-19], and groups like CEPI and the WHO are helping us get that early access.”

Goals of intervention: immediate impact with an eye on the future 

Ugandan Health Minister Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng visits a proposed site to construct an isolation facility in Kassanda District.

Ebola has a fatality rate of up to 90%, making immediate support in areas like contact tracing key to limiting the damage caused by the virus.

WHO has already helped the Ministry of Health train and deploy over 300 contact tracers, who have contributed to a rise in the success rate of contact tracing from 25% at the start of the outbreak, to nearly 94% in recent days, WHO said.

“Today there is an outbreak in Uganda. Tomorrow it could be somewhere else,” Bosa said. “After the last major Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the world began to undertake changes to ensure it wouldn’t happen again, but then moved on. We need to finish the job this time.”

Image Credits: UNICEF, Uganda Ministry of Health .

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