Ebola vaccine trials could begin in January

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People in Ebola-stricken West Africa could start getting experimental vaccines as early as January, according to the World Health Organization.

Although global immunization is much further off, tens of thousands of people could be involved in the front-line testing phase.

"There is still a possibility that it will fail, but everybody is putting things in order [to be] able to move to West Africa in January," Marie-Paule Kieny, a WHO assistant director-general, told Reuters.

Clinical trials have already begun farther from the crisis: 500 volunteers in Mali, the United States, England and other countries will provide safety and immune-response data by December, Kieny said. The current tests are using vaccines from GlaxoSmithKline and NewLink Genetics.

The WHO is currently investigating which treatment centers in the three hardest-hit countries — Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia — could help test the vaccines, CNN reported.

Medical ethicists have been debating whether placebos will be used in the trials, The Guardian reported.

Although the National Institutes of Health has been working on an Ebola vaccine for over 10 years, there was little sense of urgency until now.

"The main reason is that up until the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, it was not a very high priority," Dr. Myron Levine, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told CBS News. "With limited resources to test vaccines, et cetera, one always has to pick and choose what are the highest priorities," he said.

And, until now, the highest priorities have been "everyday threats like cancer and the flu," CBS News reported.

Also, there wasn't much of a financial incentive for the drug companies to fund an Ebola vaccine, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at NIH, told CBS News:

"You have a company that says, 'Let's see, maybe I could make a pill that everybody takes every day, whatever it is, a lipid lowering agent, another kind of Viagra, what have you — they put a lot of money in to get that product, that wasn't the case with Ebola."

Still, there's no guarantee the Ebola vaccines will work.

“We have just one chance to succeed with a vaccine,” Dr. Ripley Ballou of manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline PLC, who will supervise much of the work in Africa, told the Wall Street Journal. “So if you sense urgency in my voice, you’re right.”

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