DISEASE

Canada to donate experimental Ebola vaccine to WHO for use in Africa

Experimental drug as yet untested, but WHO says it's ethical given the public health crisis

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 11:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 7:26pm

Canada will donate a small quantity of an experimental Ebola vaccine developed in its government lab to the World Health Organisation for use in Africa, the country's health minister said.

The decision on Tuesday to donate the vaccine came after the WHO said that it was ethical to offer untested drugs to people infected by the virus.

The Canadian government will donate between 800 to 1,000 doses of the vaccine, with the final number given dependent on how much Canada holds back for research and clinical trials. The government will also keep a small supply in case it is needed domestically.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose said she offered the vaccine to Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, director general of the WHO.

The US is also working on a vaccine and the WHO and governments involved were discussing its possible use in Africa, Dr Greg Taylor, deputy chief public health officer of the Public Health Agency of Canada, said.

Canada only has about 1,500 animal doses of the vaccine, which it invented a few years ago, and would need four to six months to make a large quantity, he said. The government's vaccine is separate from the treatment being developed by Canada's Tekmira Pharmaceuticals.

"We see this as a global resource, something we need to put on the global table to say ... how can we make best use of this asset? We're looking to do that as fast as we can," Taylor said.

The WHO yesterday reported 128 new Ebola cases and 56 deaths in West Africa in the two days to August 11, raising the death toll from the worst ever outbreak of the disease to 1,069. Since the outbreak was identified in March, there have been a total of 1,975 confirmed, probable and suspected Ebola cases in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

The Canadian vaccine, which the agency licensed for commercialisation to US firm BioProtection Systems, a unit of NewLink Genetics, has proven effective in animals but has never been tested in humans, Taylor said.

Last week, Iowa-based NewLink said BioProtection had a contract with the US Department of Defence for studies to bring the Canadian Ebola vaccine closer to human testing.

"We've been trying to figure out how we can make a contribution in the fight against this disease and get our vaccine into the clinic," said Brian Wiley, NewLink vice-president of business development.

Deciding whether to use an experimental drug on humans is "very difficult", Taylor said.

"You really don't know how safe it is, you don't know what the side effects are going to be. But in this extraordinary circumstance in Africa right now, we're trying to do everything we can to assist."

The first doses in Africa would probably be available to health care workers, Taylor said.

The Public Health Agency of Canada was also involved in the development of ZMapp, an experimental treatment licensed by US firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical that has been used to treat two infected American aid workers.