The fight against the Ebola virus has seen what could potentially be a massive breakthrough this month, after the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi, Ghana, and Zambia have become the first countries to licence an Ebola vaccine.
The World Health Organization (WHO) explained in a statement that this means that the vaccine can now be administered without first undergoing clinical trials.
Several more countries are reportedly expected to also approve the vaccine in the next few weeks.
The WHO has reportedly pushed through certification and access to the vaccine at an unprecedented rate, with the aim of limiting the spread of the Ebola outbreak and protecting lives.
The vaccine marks a hopeful moment in the fight against Ebola, particularly in the DRC. The country is currently experiencing its second worst Ebola outbreak, which started in August 2018, and has already claimed more than 2,000 lives.
Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the WHO, said: “It’s not a treatment, it’s a vaccination, but it does have an effect on the course of the disease even if you're already exposed.”
Ebola was first diagnosed in 1976, when there were simultaneous outbreaks in South Sudan and DRC. The DRC has had nine outbreaks in 13 years.
Meanwhile, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia in West Africa saw a devastating outbreak that ran from 2014 to 2016, and during which more than 11,000 people were killed.
The vaccine — called rVSV-ZEBOV — was approved for selective use in June 2018 in a process known as "compassionate use".
This made it possible for the vaccine to be administered with the consent of patients, and only to those at the highest risk of contracting the virus due to their connection to a person who has the virus.
To date, it has been administered on health and emergency workers in DRC, Burundi, Uganda, South Sudan, and Rwanda. It has also been given to more than 290,000 people in the DRC.
The vaccine has been found to be effective in 97.5% of the cases, and it’s hoped that it can now reduce the chances of death in people who are infected with Ebola.
Harris added: “We know that even if somebody has already been exposed, already infected, if we vaccinate them, the course of disease is far less severe [and] ... the survival rate is very, very high.”
The World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, told the Voice of America that the DRC has started making strides in the fight against Ebola.
Moeti said: “What I can say with a great deal of hope and optimism is that … we are seeing, for example, in a week something like five cases. So, the number of cases per day is very much reduced than they were a few weeks ago, soon after we had some violent attacks and had to stop essentially the interventions in the hotspots in the DRC.”
She added: “We are cautiously optimistic that we are reaching the end of this Ebola outbreak. What is very important really is the security aspect. That we have stable security support and that hopefully, as well … violent attacks be addressed, so that they do not continue to be a hindrance to finishing this outbreak.”