Uganda Launching New Experimental Ebola Vaccine Trial
Uganda Launching New Experimental Ebola Vaccine Trial

Uganda Launching New Experimental Ebola Vaccine Trial

Researchers aim to deploy the trial in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been ravaged by Ebola for a year.

Aug 2, 2019
Nicoletta Lanese

ABOVE: © ISTOCK.COM, MANJURUL

Researchers in Uganda are set to introduce a second experimental Ebola vaccine to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where the virus has claimed more than 1,800 lives in the past year. The trial, supported by Doctors without Borders and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, will be the largest yet conducted with this vaccine.

Over the course of the outbreak, about 180,000 people have received an experimental vaccine produced by Merck Pharmaceuticals. Although effective, the vaccine could not overcome impediments to virus containment in the country due to violence and resistance to health care interventions from communities that hadn’t experienced the disease. The new vaccine, produced by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, has been tested in about 6,000 people, mostly African.  

“It’s one of those vaccines that have shown a lot of promise in animal studies but also in other trials that have been conducted,” says Pontiano Kaleebu, a Ugandan researcher leading the trial, in an interview with The Associated Press. The researchers are starting their study following the recent resignation of DRC health minister Oly Ilunga, who opposed introducing a second vaccine in the country.

As of August 1, the Ebola outbreak has raged into its second year, and in July, the World Health Organization declared the epidemic an international health emergency. The DRC government reported the first four cases in the DRC city of Goma this week, chalking the grand total up to about 2,700 altogether in the outbreak. The yearlong epidemic is the second-worst Ebola outbreak on record, ranking behind the 2014–2016 West Africa crisis that killed more than 11,000 people. 

Two Ebola cases have cropped up in Uganda, but none yet in the bordering country of Rwanda, which lies about 7 km from Goma. Rwanda briefly shut down its border crossing in light of the new cases, stalling the traffic of an estimated 45,000 people who pass through each day, an immigration official tells Reuters.

“When you close borders . . . two things happen: first you get panic, people see this as a signal to start panicking. Secondly, people who do have symptoms go underground,” says Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, in an interview with Reuters.

Nonetheless, neighboring countries are wary of the disease’s spread. The Ebola virus, fatal in 90 percent of cases, incites symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain, and bleeding and easily spreads through contact with bodily fluids.

“I think there's still a risk of this being like the West Africa outbreak,” says Ebola researcher Daniel Bausch in an interview with NPR. “Given the limited amount of vaccine that’s available and the really concerning epi curves [rise in cases] we’ve seen over the last few weeks, I think we should be prepared for a long outbreak that will still go on for many months or years.”

Nicoletta Lanese is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at nlanese@the-scientist.com.