The World Health Organization is sending a team to the Democratic Republic of Congo after doctors there confirmed a new Ebola outbreak. The National Institute of Biological Research in Kinshasa found the deadly virus in two of five people it tested. Doctors with the Equateur Province Health Ministry in Congo’s rural northwest sent samples to Kinshasa after diagnosing 21 cases of a hemorrhagic fever, from which 17 people died. The teams sent in response found the five new cases sent to Kinshasa for testing. This is the ninth confirmed Ebola outbreak in Congo since 1976. The last, in May 2017, left four of eight patients dead but didn’t spread beyond a remote village.
The WHO team now headed to the country will include vaccination support personnel, but no vaccine has won approval to combat the disease. Efforts to develop an Ebola vaccine ramped up after the 2014 outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone that killed 11,300 people and sparked fears of a worldwide epidemic. Results of a clinical trial conducted in Liberia with two different vaccines showed promise, but researchers are still trying to determine whether those serums can prevent infection.
A single-dose vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant Merck has proven effective at preventing infection for up to two years in the first phase of clinical trials, according to study results published this month in the British journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. The company plans to conduct more trials later this year.
“In the meantime, we are maintaining a stockpile of more than 300,000 emergency-use dose equivalents that can support an outbreak response, should the need arise,” Beth-Ann Coller, executive director of Vaccines Clinical Research for Merck Research Laboratories, told Contagion. “Although the vaccine is not yet licensed, there are mechanisms to support the use of the investigational product should an outbreak occur.” —Leigh Jones