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Merck Ebola vaccine lands in DRC; officials discuss other experimental therapies

Four thousand doses of Merck & Co. Inc.'s experimental Ebola vaccine have landed in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a second batch is on the way, officials from the World Health Organization, or WHO, told journalists following an emergency meeting on the latest outbreak.

The vaccine, dubbed V920, has proven safe and effective in clinical trials, WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the press conference, though it has not yet been approved by regulatory agencies.

There have been 45 reported cases of the viral hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since mid-April, including 25 deaths and 14 confirmed cases. Of those, 11 have been confirmed in the last 24 hours, Ghebreyesus noted.

SNL Image

With experimental vaccines and treatments on hand, WHO officials say there is a paradigm shift from previous Ebola outbreaks such as the 2014 crisis, pictured in Liberia. (Credit: AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh).

DRC government officials have also been interested in deploying ZMapp, an experimental Ebola treatment made by San Diego, CA-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. The government is likely to make a decision on that drug in the next few days but its use could prove challenging, Robert Steffen, Chairman of the Emergency Committee, said.

"ZMapp is an infusion that takes several hours," Steffen said, adding that when he and Ghebreyesus visited the rural Bikoro region at the epicenter of the outbreak, it was clear that the medical facilities there would need significant support to be able to introduce intravenous infusions.

The WHO meeting was convened after news this week that an Ebola case had been confirmed in Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million close to the country's border with the Republic of the Congo. Despite the escalation, WHO officials said today that the situation did not meet the conditions for declaring a "public health emergency of international concern," a formal classification that would draw global action.

Still, the agency is requesting $26 million for the next three months of outbreak response and said nearly $9 million had already been pledged.

"That may sound like a considerable sum of money, but let's remember the Ebola outbreak a few years ago cost the international community between $3 and $4 billion," Ghebreyesus said. The 2014-2016 outbreak in western Africa spread across multiple countries, leading to more than 11,300 deaths and nearly 30,000 reported infections.

WHO is scaling up response efforts in nearby countries, particularly DRC's northern neighbor the Republic of the Congo, which shares a long and porous border on the trade-active Congo River.

"In the past, our major objective was containment and we had very little else to offer communities," Steffen said in the press conference. "One of the paradigm shifts we're thinking to make in this response is to offer communities a lot more. Vaccines are a part of that, and therapeutics are also a part of it."

Besides the 4,300 vaccines already sent to WHO, Merck has 300,000 emergency-use doses at the ready, spokesperson Pamela Eisele previously told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Johnson & Johnson is also standing by with about 2 million doses of its own experimental vaccine at the ready, Macaya Douogui, head of clinical development and medical affairs for its vaccine division, said in an interview.

"WHO has reorganized the way in which they structure their response efforts," Douogui said. "One of those ways has been to be more proactive."

J&J has been in contact with WHO and offered its vaccines, Douogui said. She added that the most important priority is still containing the outbreak as quickly as possible.

"We're in a better position," she said, referring to the devastating 2014-2016 outbreak. "Hopefully that will limit the need for additional measures."