The Ebola Vaccine Is a Huge Canadian Accomplishment — and It Sat on the Shelf for Years
The last notable Ebola outbreak killed more than 11,300 people in West Africa.
Health workers began a vaccination campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Monday, using more than 7,500 doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine that was created in Canada.
The vaccine could be the key to drastically reducing the number of deaths attributed to Ebola and controlling the current outbreak. But not long ago, there was a lack of interest in developing a vaccine against this devastating disease.
Ebola was first discovered in 1976 with two outbreaks in what is now Nzara, South Sudan, and Yambuku, DRC, near the Ebola River.
Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg got to work studying the Ebola virus in 1999, and quickly discovered it could develop a vaccine.
"It took several years to convince funding agencies of the value of spending the National Microbiology Laboratory's limited resources on Ebola vaccine research over other pressing public health issues in Canada," Dr. Francis Plummer wrote in the CMAJ in 2017.
It took four years to get half of the funding they wanted, according to Plummer.
"There followed the dogged work of building the vaccine program, putting contracts in place and securing sign-off from Ottawa," he wrote, according to CBC.
The Canadian team published research that proved the vaccine was 100% effective in monkeys back in 2005.
The Canadian government patented it and produced 800 vials, but there was little interest from the pharmaceutical world, according to Plummer.
When the intense outbreak hit West Africa in 2014, though, the Canadian vaccine was thrown into the spotlight.
Canada had signed over the licence to the vaccine to NewLink in 2010, and while the outbreak was killing thousands, the vaccine sat collecting dust, according to CBC.
Merck eventually signed a licensing agreement to develop the vaccine with NewLink at the end of 2014. Canada funded clinical trials, with added support from agencies like the WHO, the Wellcome Trust, and other American organizations.
The Canadian government funded $5.3 million in the research and develop of the Ebola vaccine over 10 years, not including costs associated to operations in the National Microbiology Laboratory.
Health officials hope this vaccine will contain the current outbreak, which is thought to have killed 27 people to date.
The new Ebola vaccine was proven safe and effective in 2016, but is not yet licensed or approved.
Once approved, Merck will market the vaccine.
"Merck's motivation to pursue licensure is to address a major public health need," Pamela Eisele, a spokesperson for Merck, told CBC in an email. "Should our investigational vaccine receive appropriate licensing, Merck has pledged to make the vaccine available to the world's poorest countries at the lowest possible, not-for-profit price."
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