WASHINGTON – A top U.S. official outlined plans Wednesday for clinical trials of a possible Ebola vaccine in West Africa, as the global response to the outbreak took on added urgency with the disclosure of a new cluster of cases in Mali and reports that the death toll had surpassed 5,000.
Two studies of a U.S.-developed vaccine will begin in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January and if they go well, “we could know by the middle of 2015 whether or not we have an effective vaccine,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The confirmation of long-anticipated vaccine studies came as the Senate panel began evaluating the Obama administration’s request for $6.2 billion in emergency aid to fight Ebola.
“These resources are essential to stop the outbreak in Africa and protect us,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the number of infections is slowing in some parts of West Africa, the World Health Organization said cases still are surging in Sierra Leone. Worse, nearby Mali on Wednesday reported three deaths linked to Ebola and moved to track dozens of people who may have been exposed.
“That cluster has to be controlled or we’re going to have another front,” Frieden warned.
The spending request includes $4.64 billion in immediate spending to fight the epidemic and shore up U.S. preparedness. The domestic work includes such things as continuing training so far given to 250,000 nurses and other U.S. health workers on how to safely handle any cases, designating hospitals in every state capable of handling Ebola or other serious infectious diseases, and creating a national stockpile of protective equipment for health workers.
Some of the money also would go to setting up health systems in other vulnerable countries so they could spot and stop similar outbreaks before they became a crisis.
More than $1.5 billion of the aid package would be for a contingency fund to deal with any unexpected developments.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the appropriations committee, said lawmakers would move rapidly on the request. “We need to contain the disease and we need to eradicate it,” she said.
Also included in the U.S. funding request is $238 million for the NIH for clinical trials of experimental vaccines and treatments. Fauci said Wednesday that he had just seen results of U.S. safety testing of the first experimental Ebola vaccine, and the results were good enough to go ahead with those hoped-for studies in West Africa.