Ebola vaccine fast-tracked, to begin first human trial as last virus-free region of Liberia falls

'Mystery' fever in DRC; Sierra Leone passes two-year jail terms for hiding Ebola victims; and South Africa lists Kenya, Ethiopia as 'medium risk'.

A VACCINE developed by researchers at the US National Institutes of Health has been fast-tracked by regulators and is expected to begin its first human safety trial by September.

The virus has spread relentlessly through Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and Nigeria has also been affected despite showing some progress in fighting the epidemic, which has killed 1,427 people since March.

The vaccine is based on a chimpanzee adenovirus, a relative of cold viruses. Scientists are racing to begin the first human safety tests of two experimental Ebola vaccines, but it won’t be easy to prove that the shots and other potential treatments in the pipeline really work.

British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline has said it is currently ushering the potential injection through the development process, after acquiring its original developer, vaccine specialist Okairos AG for, US$325 million last year.

Studies show the vaccine could protect monkeys from the virus. There are no proven drugs or vaccines for Ebola, a disease so rare that it’s been hard to attract investments in countermeasures.

‘Success’ stories

However, two American missionaries who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Liberia made a full recovery in the United States. The two were treated with experimental drug ZMapp, which was also given to two Liberian doctors. They are said to be “recovering” well.

The failure of west African countries to bring the epidemic under control has worried its neighbours and nations further afield.

South Africa has announced a total travel ban for all non-citizens travelling from high risk countries, unless the travel is considered absolutely essential.

The ban applies to travellers from high risk countries—Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Health Ministry spokesperson Joe Maila said.

The South African government listed Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia as “medium risk” countries. While Nigeria has had about a dozen cases of Ebola, Kenya and Ethiopia haven’t but their national carriers are very active in West Africa.

Likewise Senegal on Thursday closed its land border with Guinea, where 396 people have died to date, in an attempt to stop the epidemic reaching it.

Gabon, meanwhile, suspended flights and maritime links from affected countries, and said it would deliver visas to travellers coming from the Ebola zone “on a case-by-case basis”.

In a further, urgent effort to contain the epidemic, Sierra Leone’s parliament passed a law on Friday that imposes a jail term of up to two years for anyone concealing an Ebola-infected patient.

Sierra Leone has been one of the hardest hit by the epidemic, with 374 deaths and 907 cases since the outbreak began.

For Liberia, the news only got worse and its isolation could grow further. Ebola has now hit every region of the country, officials said Friday, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the fight against the worst-ever outbreak of the killer disease would take months.

After seeing people fall to the deadly virus in area after area, Liberia said two people had succumbed to the virus in Sinoe province, the last Ebola-free bastion in a country that has seen the biggest toll with 624 deaths.

“(Sinoe) was the last area untouched by Ebola,” George Williams, head of the Health Workers Association of Liberia, told AFP.

Ebola chaos

The country has witnessed chaotic scenes in recent days following a surge in the number of patients dying of the hemorrhagic fever.

Aid workers said crematoriums in the capital of Monrovia were struggling to deal with bodies arriving every day, and earlier this week, violence erupted in an Ebola quarantine zone in the capital after soldiers opened fire on protesting crowds.

In a bid to ease the crisis, medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is working on nearly quadrupling the capacity of its Ebola centre in Monrovia.

“Currently we have around 60 patients for a capacity of 120 beds,” said Henry Gray, an MSF coordinator.

“And we are making our site bigger. In the next 10 days, we hope to have a location that can welcome up to 400 patients.”

DRC sees strange case

In neighbouring Nigeria, officials said Friday that two more people had tested positive for Ebola, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 14, including five deaths.

Meanwhile, as fears grow that the outbreak will spread across Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—where Ebola was first identified in 1976 in what was then Zaire - said a fever of unidentified origin had killed 13 people in the country’s northwest since August 11.

But a WHO official and MSF said Friday it was too soon to tell whether a haemorrhagic fever caused the deaths, and the results of swabs are due in a week’s time.

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