J&J aims to help Rwanda buffer Ebola's advance with 200,000 vaccine doses

With an Ebola virus outbreak still wreaking havoc in Congo, world health authorities are looking for ways to stop the spread. And to prepare the Rwandan border for a potential crisis, Johnson & Johnson is stepping in.

J&J will deploy 200,000 doses of its investigational Ebola vaccine in Rwanda near the Congo border. It's part of a government-led immunization effort to fend off a cross-border epidemic, the company said Sunday. 

The immunization program, named Umurinzi after the Kinyarwandan word for a "guardian" tree, will inoculate Rwandans ages two years and older in regions bordering Congo judged to be at risk. J&J is also in discussions to include an immunogenicity study and a clinical study in pregnant women. 

The first vaccine batches have already shipped, and follow-up shipments are in the works, J&J said. 

"Johnson & Johnson recognizes the Rwandan Government's decision to proactively deploy Janssen's investigational Ebola vaccine to help prevent the spread of the disease into the country," J&J Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels said in a release. "We stand ready to support Rwanda's initiative on epidemic preparedness."

RELATED: Merck's Ervebo, the world's first Ebola shot, wins inaugural approval in EU

Congo's ongoing Ebola outbreak, which the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health crisis of international concern in July, has seen a reported 3,300 cases and 2,200 deaths, J&J said. 

J&J's isn't the only shot officials are using to fight the virus. Merck & Co.'s vaccine—now approved as Ervebo in Europe—was adopted to fend off Ebola's spread after a West Africa outbreak in 2014. That outbreak since has claimed more than 11,000 lives. 

When Merck's shot won backing from the European Medicines Agency's Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use, Merck Research Laboratories President Roger Perlmutter said the company’s “top priority” was securing registration for its German plant where it plans to manufacture the vaccine. Now, armed with the approval, Merck can start producing licensed doses at that plant, and it expects to start shipping them in the third quarter of 2020.

J&J's candidate vaccine was recommended for evaluation by the WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization in May and was later approved for conditional use by the Rwandan FDA. J&J announced in October the vaccine would be deployed in Congo following the WHO's recommendation.