Uganda Prepares New Ebola Vaccine Clinical Trial as Cases Rise to Seven
Surveillance for Ebola virus disease at the border between DR Congo and Uganda in 2019 Photo: WHO/Matt Taylor

In a matter of weeks, a clinical trial for an Ebola vaccine candidate that could protect against the Sudan strain of the Ebola virus could get underway in central Uganda where the number of confirmed cases in the country’s ongoing outbreak has risen to seven.

Uganda has confirmed seven cases and one death from its Ebola outbreak and is investigating seven other deaths suspected to be Ebola cases, according to ​​Dr Kyobe Henry Bbosa of Uganda’s Ministry of Health.

Bbosa told a World Health Organization (WHO) special press briefing on the Ebola outbreak on Thursday that it began earlier this month when sporadic deaths began to be recorded in small villages now considered to be at the epicenter.

On Sept. 19, he said, a 25-year-old man entered a regional hospital with symptoms after being treated earlier in several other places. “We were able to identify the Ebola Sudan virus at the Uganda Virus Research Institute,” Bbosa said.

Six more cases have since been confirmed, mainly from five sub-counties within central Uganda’s Mubende district. On Thursday however, Bbosa revealed that one case may have come from a neighboring district.

He noted the epicenter of the outbreak is close to a major highway that leads into the country’s capital city of Kampala from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that it has busy trading places and a nearby goldmine.

Contact tracing has begun, he said, with a total of 43 contacts reached so far. Authorities have turned a former COVID-19 clinic into an Ebola treatment center and are working to boost public awareness about the risks.

This is not the first time that Uganda has dealt with an Ebola outbreak from the Sudan strain of the virus. An outbreak in 2000 led to more than 200 deaths and a subsequent one in 2012 occurred in central Uganda.

Because of those, Bbosa said, Uganda’s health authorities have developed “significant expertise to be able to respond to this current outbreak.”

WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world health body’s “experts are on the ground, working with Uganda’s experienced Ebola control teams to reinforce diagnosis, treatment and preventive measures.”

Along with the seven confirmed cases and one confirmed death, another seven deaths are being investigated as “probable Ebola,” he told a press briefing on Thursday, while 16 people with suspected Ebola disease are receiving care, and contact tracing is ongoing.

“We are also delivering medical supplies to support the care of patients,” he added.

Dr Ana Maria Henao-Restrepo, head of WHO’s Research and Development Unit

The race to test new Ebola vaccines

There is no approved vaccine for the Ebola virus disease outbreak that is caused by the Sudan strain of the virus, Health Policy Watch has reported.

Dr Ana Maria Henao-Restrepo, WHO’s technical lead for the R&D blueprint for emergency response, confirmed the UN health agency has already begun talking to drug makers about vaccine candidates that could undergo clinical trials on an emergency basis.

“We have been able to initiate research very quickly during previous outbreaks in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Sudan and other countries,” she said. “What we are doing now is we are bringing all the stakeholders and we are sharing all the information about candidate vaccines very quickly. We will soon identify which of the candidates has sufficient data to move into a phase II/III study.”

Some of WHO’s most immediate goals are to ensure there are sufficient doses for a clinical trial to start and to approve the protocols to be used. Henao-Restrepo said there is already a core protocol — a design that includes all the critical elements needed to conduct a robust evaluation of candidate vaccines.

This protocol, she said, was developed based on experience with vaccines for Ebola and Marburg viruses, and can be updated to adapt to the situation in Uganda.

The supplies for vaccine candidates are ready to be deployed for trials, she said, and will not be delayed by a time-consuming procurement process.

“So we have three critical elements ready, moving fast,” said Henao-Restrepo.

“If we do have more cases, we could trigger a trial within a few weeks. That’s the experience from DRC, to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and other countries,” she said. “In doing this fast, we are ensuring that we comply with the international standards, Uganda regulatory standards and the researchers’ capabilities and qualities. We are not cutting corners.”

Image Credits: WHO/Matt Taylor.

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