Merck’s Experimental Ebola Shot Seeing Wide Use in Outbreak

(Bloomberg) -- Merck & Co.’s experimental Ebola virus vaccine is seeing wide use in the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has helped health workers gain acceptance in affected areas.

More than 96 percent of people offered the Merck vaccination take it, and some 4,600 doses have been administered, Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s assistant director-general for emergencies, said in an interview posted on the agency’s Facebook page. It’s also helped calm fears in Ebola-stricken communities, unlike many earlier outbreaks where health workers were viewed with suspicion, he said.

“This is really transforming the community’s attitude,” he said. “I think the terror that’s been associated with viral hemorrhagic fevers, and in particular with Ebola, will decrease.”

The potentially lethal virus has struck at least 112 people in the North Kivu province that borders on Rwanda and Uganda, and health workers are focusing their attention on vaccinating people who were in contact with patients, along with contacts of the contacts. The approach, called ring vaccination, is designed to contain the virus’s spread, as with fighting a forest fire, Ryan said.

“Sometimes you think the fire is out, and all you need is one ember and the fire is going again,” he said. “My feeling is we’re going to be seeing cases for the next few weeks.”

Bringing Hope

More than 11,000 people died of Ebola from 2014 to 2016 in West Africa. In many previous epidemics, when health workers arrived it was to remove and bury the dead, Ryan said. While WHO can’t say definitively that the vaccine is working, it has brought hope, he said.

“We’re bringing some possibility that people are going to be protected in a village,” he said.

While it hasn’t received regulatory approval, the vaccine has gone through the final phase of human testing required for licensing. The Merck treatment was also used earlier this year in another Ebola outbreak in the DRC.

While working toward licensure, “we remain committed to playing our part in responding to outbreaks,” Beth-Ann Coller, executive director of vaccine clinical research at Merck Research Laboratories, said in an email. “We remain optimistic based on the results from the previous ring-vaccination trial.”

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