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Ebola vaccine developed in Winnipeg is headed for Africa

Canada is donating 800 to 1,000 doses of the vaccine, which was developed at the National Microbiology Laboratory

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A Liberian soldier, left, mans a checkpoint to control the movement of people as authorities try to prevent the Ebola virus from spreading on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014.

ABBAS DULLEH / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

A Liberian soldier, left, mans a checkpoint to control the movement of people as authorities try to prevent the Ebola virus from spreading on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014.

OTTAWA — Up to 1,000 doses of an Ebola vaccine developed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg will soon be on their way to West Africa to help stop the spread of the worst outbreak of the disease the world has ever seen.

"This is one of the many accomplishments of this world renowned lab," Manitoba regional minister Shelly Glover said Wednesday at a news conference in Winnipeg.

Canada announced it would donate between 800 and 1,000 doses of the vaccine to the World Health Organization, which will decide who will get the doses and how they will be distributed.

"We hope this (decision) will happen as quickly as possible," said Glover. "In the meantime they remain here in Winnipeg ready to go at a moment’s notice."

The vaccine was developed by Winnipeg-based researchers at Arlington Street lab and has shown 100 per cent effectiveness in preventing lethal infection of Ebola in non-human primates. It has not been clinically tested in humans.

However, a panel of experts from the Public Health Agency of Canada, and a panel of experts from the World Health Organization, both decided separately it was ethical to offer untested drugs to patients in West Africa.

The current outbreak began in Guinea last December and spread to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone. A small number of cases have also been diagnosed in Nigeria.

Nearly 2,000 people have been diagnosed with it, and 1,069 deaths have been reported to date.

Ebola causes haemorrhagic fever in humans and animals and is spread through the transfer of contaminated bodily fluids, such as blood or saliva.

Dr. Gary Kobinger, chief of special pathogens for the National Microbiology Lab, said Wednesday the vaccine can be used in higher doses for people who have already been exposed to the virus, or in smaller doses to people who are at risk of exposure.

He said it’s not entirely known yet how the vaccine works, although there are two main theories.

The first is that the vaccine stimulates an immune response in the body that battles the virus in a race against time. The second theory is that the vaccine competes with the virus for the same target cells, and if it wins that race the virus is shut out.

Kobinger said no adverse reactions have been seen in primates, nor in the one human being who received the vaccine. In 2009, a lab worker in Germany was given this vaccine after she may have exposed herself to Ebola in a lab accident. She never developed Ebola but it was also not known if she actually came in contact with Ebola when she pricked her finger.

Glover stressed the decision on who will get the vaccine will be made by scientific experts, not politicians.

The vaccine is not the same as the drug used to treat two Americans and a Spanish priest who were diagnosed with Ebola after helping treat patients in Africa. That drug, known as ZMapp, is a serum, not a vaccine. It was also developed in part by researchers at the Winnipeg lab, along with U.S. researchers.

The priest has died but the two Americans are alive and being treated in a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

This is the second time in the last five years the Winnipeg lab has been called on to help with a vaccine for an immediate public health threat. In 2009 it was ground zero in developing the vaccine for H1N1.

The National Microbiology Lab is the only level four biocontainment facility in Canada, capable of handling the world’s deadliest organisms, including Ebola.

Ten doses of the vaccine were already sent to Geneva to be used on relief workers. Another 500 doses are being kept in Winnipeg for further testing.

The existing doses were actually produced in Germany and it takes two to three months to make another batch of that amount, Kobinger said.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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