Science, Now + Beyond

Ebola vaccine may offer hope to victims

If you were keeping up with the previous outbreak of Ebola-like I was, you'll know how scary the disease can be, and how quickly the virus can spread from person to person.

Since the first case of Ebola, a type of hemorrhagic fever, was diagnosed in the late 1970s, the disease has periodically infected and killed thousands of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The disease can be highly infectious, and usually carries a mortality rate of 50%, making it an extremely deadly virus.

In March 2014, an outbreak of Ebola began in southwest Guinea, and it quickly spread to the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. The outbreak was so widespread that it took two years before the last cases of the disease. In that two-year span, the outbreak had led to more than 28,000 cases of Ebola. Of those, more than 11,000 had died from their infection. The 2014 outbreak was the largest Ebola outbreak in history; however, new cases of the disease have now been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, meaning another large-scale outbreak is possible.

If you were keeping up with the previous outbreak of Ebola-like I was, you’ll know how scary the disease can be, and how quickly the virus can spread from person to person. It seemed like every day, there were more stories of people dying from the virus, and I really hope we do not have to witness thousands endure a similar outbreak. It’s devastating.

Thankfully, this time around, there is a vaccine that might be able to prevent the virus from spreading.

The vaccine is called rVSV-ZEBOV, and was developed by Merck, an American pharmaceutical company alongside the Public Health Agency of Canada. After the 2014 outbreak caused so many illnesses, the development of vaccines increased rapidly, and the rVSV-ZEBOV one has become the closest to being approved for widespread use.

The rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine is already being deployed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo to be delivered to the contacts, and contacts of contacts, of anyone infected with Ebola. The vaccine will also be distributed to health workers and those responsible for conducting funeral services for victims, as those groups are often placed at high risk of infection through their close contact with the infected.

Although the World Health Organization reports that there are at least a dozen other Ebola vaccines currently in development, the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine is the only one of those that have gone through Phase III testing to determine its safety and efficacy in preventing the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Phase III is the part of vaccine development where the vaccine is tested on a large-scale and is usually the last phase before the vaccine is approved.

The rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine was first tested during the 2014 outbreak, where it was distributed in Guinea to around 6,000 people. Of those vaccinated, none of them contracted Ebola, giving high hopes that this vaccine is super effective in preventing the virus.

However, there are still a few potential complications from the vaccine. It has only undergone one large-scale, real-world test, and, due to the nature of the outbreak in Guinea, a control group was not used, which means that the vaccine might not actually be as effective as it appears on the surface. Additionally, the vaccine must be stored within a certain temperature range, and there is still limited data on how efficient the vaccine will be if it is compromised. 

Although the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine requires more long-term testing, its initial deployment in the 2014 Ebola outbreak gave scientists very promising results. Researchers think it is likely that this vaccine will be able to prevent the Ebola virus from causing the serious loss of life as it has in previous outbreaks. 

The development of the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine gives hope that Ebola might one day be eradicated for good.