Merck's experimental vaccine to be used in fight against Congo Ebola outbreak

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As the number of confirmed Ebola cases rises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, has requested to use an experimental vaccine being developed by pharmaceutical company Merck to treat patients at risk for Ebola, according to STAT.

The outbreak was officially declared May 8 after the DRC health ministry confirmed two positive tests among a number of suspected Ebola cases in the town of Bikoro and the village of Ikoko-Impenge, which is roughly 40 miles away. However, the outbreak is estimated to have started at least five weeks ago, STAT reported.

The WHO said May 12 the case estimate reached 39, which includes two confirmed cases, 20 probable cases and 17 suspected cases. At least 18 of those patients died.

The WHO has 4,300 doses of Merck's vaccine in Geneva, Switzerland. Merck also has 300,000 doses of the vaccine stockpiled in the U.S. and has given permission for the vaccine to be used in this outbreak. The government agreed to deploy the vaccine, provisionally called V920, under a compassionate use protocol since it is not yet licensed.

The vaccine can only be used in a clinical trial setting at this stage, which health officials are planning. "Everything is ready for the vaccine. They want it," Tedros, who goes by his first name, told STAT.

The WHO is concerned the outbreak could spread due to its location. Bikoro, the epicenter, is a port on Lake Tumba that feeds into the Congo and Ubangi rivers, which are major waterways that connect to several large centers.

The World Food Program established an air bridge to move people and material into Bikoro. The equipment required to keep the vaccine at subzero temperatures arrived in the DRC May 13 and would be set up in the following days, Tedros said.

By May 16 or 17, the vaccines in Geneva will be sent to the DRC, he added, when healthcare workers and people who have been in contact with cases can start being vaccinated.

"That's our plan. And so far things are going as planned," Tedros said, hoping the quick response will help contain the outbreak. "We have better weapons this time."

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