US pharmaceutical company Merck has achieved something unthinkable even five years ago: It has created a workable vaccine for Ebola and secured major regulatory approval.
Ervebo, Merck’s latest product, is being used to treat cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s the result of almost five years of work among researchers, scientists and regulators, protecting patients against the Zaire Ebolavirus. Although this is just one of four species of Ebola that infects humans, ARS Technica reports that Zaire was the cause of nearly all Ebola outbreaks since the late 1970s—including DRC and the 2014 outbreak in West Africa.
The site adds that it’s successful: Current data show that over 90,000 people have been protected from the virus by Ervebo, suggesting the vaccine is 97 percent effective.
Merck joins following Ebola outbreaks
In 2014, you couldn’t move for the word Ebola. The intensely contagious disease, which manifests like a more deadly form of flu, infamously broke out in West Africa in 2013 and claimed 11,000 lives by 2016. As select cases spread into the global North, a collective panic rose up—how long before someone sneezed in a public place and the whole world was infected?
While the hysteria has gradually died away, the disease unfortunately hasn’t. In August 2018, Ebola emerged in the DRC. To date, it has killed more than 2,000 people, making it the second deadliest Ebola outbreak on record.
Researchers, pharmaceutical companies and international regulators alike have thus been striving to find an elusive vaccine to control the disease before it spreads further. The first to pick it up were researchers at Canada’s Microbiology Laboratory, who passed a license for their work through NewLink Genetics Corporation to Merck.
And this week, the European Commission announced a marketing authorisation of Ervebo, with European Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis describing the news as “a major step forward in saving lives in Africa and beyond.”
The World Health Organisation has also “prequalified” the vaccine, showing member countries that it meets necessary standards for safety, quality and effectiveness. The US Food and Drug Administration will make its own approval decision in early 2020.
Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier described the support from the EU as a “historic milestone” and “testament to the power of science, innovation and public-private partnership.
“After recognising the need and urgency for an Ebola Zaire vaccine, many came together across sectors to answer the global call for outbreak preparedness,” he said in a statement. “We at Merck are honored to play a part in Ebola outbreak response efforts and we remain committed to our partners and the people we serve.”