A health worker administers an Ebola vaccination in the DRC. Picture: REUTERS
A health worker administers an Ebola vaccination in the DRC. Picture: REUTERS

London — The world’s first Ebola vaccine was recommended for approval by European drugs regulators on Friday in a move hailed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a “triumph for public health” that would save many lives.

The vaccine, developed by US drug maker Merck, is already being used under emergency guidelines to try to protect people against the spread of a deadly Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

It protects against the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus — the one that most commonly causes outbreaks.

The shot is also being reviewed under a fast-track system by regulators in the US, with a decision expected in the first quarter of next year.

“This vaccine has already saved many lives in the current Ebola outbreak, and the decision by European regulators will help it eventually save many more,” the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

The DRC Ebola outbreak has killed more than 2,100 people since the middle of 2018. It is the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history, after a 2013-2016 epidemic in West Africa that killed more than 11,300.

The Merck vaccine, which the company has now brand-named Ervebo, is likely to get a full marketing licence from the European Commission in a few weeks.

Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories, said the company’s priority now is to get regulatory approval of its Ervebo manufacturing site in Germany so that licensed supply of the vaccine “can be used to support global public health preparedness”.

Merck’s vaccine is being used in the DRC in a “ring vaccination” approach, in which people who may have been in contact with someone newly infected with Ebola are traced and offered the shot to protect them.

Health authorities in Kinshasa said last week that they plan to introduce an experimental, second Ebola vaccine, developed by drug maker Johnson & Johnson, in the country’s eastern provinces in November.

The Ebola virus causes haemorrhagic fever and spreads from person to person through direct contact with body fluids. It kills about half of those it infects.

There are currently no licensed treatments for the deadly infection, but scientists said in August they were a step closer to being able to cure it after two experimental drugs showed survival rates of as much as 90% in a clinical trial in the DRC.