The United States will begin the first-ever human trials of an Ebola vaccine, the National Institute for Health announced Tuesday.
The NIH will start a Phase I trial in September with three volunteers who have already enrolled in the experiment. The NIH hopes to expand the trial group to 20 people, and report initial results about the vaccine's efficacy by the end of the year.
The new vaccine was developed in partnership between the federal government and GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies. It comes as the Ebola outbreak shows no sign of abating, with the World Health Organization projecting Thursday morning the virus could infect as many as 20,000 people.
"This public health emergency demands an all-hands-on-deck response," said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. "We have accelerated the timeline for testing vaccines we have been working on for many years."
No current vaccine or treatment for Ebola currently exists and finding investment to fight the disease — which tends to afflict some of the poorest populations in the world — has been a constant challenge.
"These outbreaks affect the poorest communities on the planet," says Daniel Bausch, an associate professor at Tulane University who has worked on disease outbreaks. "Although they do create incredible upheaval, they are relatively rare events. So if you look at the interest of pharmaceutical companies, there is not huge enthusiasm to take an Ebola drug through phase one, two, and three of a trial and make an Ebola vaccine that maybe a few tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people will use."
The goal of the Ebola vaccine, Faluci said, was to develop a vaccine that could be used to immunize those who are at high risk of catching the disease, like health care workers, and also communities that are facing an outbreak situation.
The NIH did not provide any estimate of when the the testing would be completed or when the vaccine could be available for more widespread use. Phase I is only the first step in the drug-approval process. It's the phase where drug companies test whether a drug is safe — that it doesn't create dangerous complications or side effects — before larger studies look at whether the drug actually works.