Public health authorities say they hope to begin trials of Ebola vaccines in West African countries as early as December and could know around April whether they were effective. If the vaccines are effective, it would clear the way for possible mass inoculations to stem the epidemic, an article in the New York Times reports.


The spreading Ebola virus outbreak has killed more than 4,800 people since the start of the year, almost all of them in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. However, doctors and aid workers have contracted the virus as well, and then left the countries by airtravel—spurring fears, and at least anxiety, in other countries.


“Vaccine is not the magic bullet,” Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general for health systems and innovation for the Geneva-based World Health Organization, said at a news conference in Geneva. “But when ready, they may be a good part of the effort to turn the tide of this epidemic.”


Dr. Kieny said a decision to start mass vaccinations in the spring of 2015 would depend on whether one or more vaccines proved safe and effective, whether enough vaccine would be available and whether that strategy would be needed, the New York Times article notes. If the drug trials do begin in December, it also would be a month earlier than Dr. Kieny had previously indicated. In any case, manufacturers have committed to having millions of vaccine doses available in 2015, with hundreds of thousands ready by the first half of the year, she said.


“All previous plans are changing from week to week, and always to a greater involvement and a greater mobilization of all efforts to have more vaccine available more quickly,” Dr. Kieny said.


Two experimental vaccines are already being tested for safety in healthy volunteers in the United States and other countries outside the outbreak region. One is being developed by the National Institutes of Health and GlaxoSmithKline, while the other vaccine is being developed by the Canadian government and NewLink Genetics. If these vaccines, which are the most advanced so far, prove safe in initial testing, trials would begin in Liberia and Sierra Leone to see if the vaccines can actually prevent people from getting Ebola.


There are, of course, other companies developing drugs quickly. Tekmira, whose drug is TKM-Ebola, has taken steps to increase production and is waiting to see if it is chosen for trials in West Africa. Kentucky BioProcessing, owned by Reynolds American, is ramping up production of Mapp Biopharmaceutical’s compound ZMapp. Then there is Chimerix, which said it plans to begin a clinical trial “immediately” in Ebola-infected patients in the U.S. and Europe. The company says it has an adequate supply of its brincidofovir tablets, and it plans to continue making the drug available on an emergency basis in the U.S. and Europe.


Earlier this week, Johnson & Johnson announced it would spend up to $200 million to speed up and expand its Ebola vaccine program, with testing scheduled to begin in January. The company said its unit Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies was closely working with the World Health Organization, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as other key stakeholders, governments and public health authorities on the program.


The proposed vaccine regimen combines a Janssen preventative vaccine with a vaccine from Bavarian Nordic, a biotechnology company based in Denmark. The vaccine combination was discovered in a collaborative research program between Janssen and the National Institutes of Health.


“Our innovation model enables us to quickly mobilize our extensive resources to collaborate with health authorities and governments and other experts to help contain this disease, save lives and protect the health and lives of those at risk,” says Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO, Johnson & Johnson.


What I find intriguing is how quickly companies and their supply chains have been able to reallocate resources to accelerate and expand their vaccine programs. It will be interesting to watch both vaccine development, as well as whether or not other companies are able to bring vaccines to clinical trials.