Merck & Co. and other biopharma players hustled to develop Ebola vaccines amid a devastating West Africa epidemic that started in 2014. Now, before Merck’s shot wins an official license, it could be used to combat a new outbreak in Congo.
International charity Médecins Sans Frontières is in talks to implement a vaccination campaign with the local government, according to a spokesperson. The World Health Organization and local authorities would have to approve the response, she added.
As of Saturday, WHO reports 11 suspected cases and 3 deaths from the ongoing outbreak.
The developments come shortly after a WHO advisory committee recommended last month that Merck’s vaccine be deployed in the event of an outbreak. The committee said an outbreak response should use a ring vaccination strategy, which focuses on immunizing those most likely to contract the virus because of their personal relationships with patients. The aim is to create a protective barrier around people at risk of infection. In a 2015 phase 3 trial that tested the vaccination method, Merck’s shot posted 100% efficacy.
Meanwhile, international vaccine alliance Gavi has purchased 300,000 vaccine doses for stockpiling in case of an Ebola emergency. The current outbreak involves the Zaire strain of Ebola, which Merck’s shot targets.
After responding quickly to a previous Ebola outbreak that killed thousands, Merck has said it plans to submit the vaccine for regulatory approval by the end of 2017. Last year, the shot won the FDA’s Breakthrough Therapy Designation and the EMA’s Priority Medicines status.
Also working on Ebola vaccines are Big Pharmas GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson, as well as biotechs including Novavax and Inovio. Merck licensed its candidate from NewLink Genetics.
Since the West Africa Ebola emergency ended in 2016, several other emerging diseases have cropped up, including Zika, leading some biopharma and health officials to shift their focus to new research.
In response to a number of diseases that have caught the global health community off guard in recent years, pharmas, governments and nonprofits recently teamed up to create the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
The group is designed to be an “insurance policy against epidemics” by proactively conducting research. It’s starting off by working on vaccines against the MERS-CoV, Lassa and Nipah viruses.