Spanish researchers develop five-strain vaccine against lethal Ebola virus

Spanish researchers are working on a vaccine against all five strains of the killer Ebola virus in what would be a world first, Madrid's October 12 Hospital said Wednesday (July 11).

Spanish researchers develop five-strain vaccine against lethal Ebola virus
Ebola protects itself with proteins that act as a shield, and only exposes its vulnerable zones for short periods of time. Photo: AFP

A prototype vaccine developed by pharmaceutical group Merck is already in use, but acts only against the most virulent, “Zaire” strain.

Despite not having market approval, Merck's rVSV-ZEBOV was administered to people in the Democratic Republic of Congo in May, with UN approval, in a bid to contain an outbreak of the same virus that killed more than 11,300 in three West African countries from 2013 to 2015, sparking international panic.

For several months, a team from the October 12 Hospital has been working with researchers at two other hospitals in the capital to examine and learn from blood samples taken from three people cured of Ebola in Spain.

Lead researcher Rafael Delgado told reporters the difficulty lay in the fact that the virus protects itself with proteins that act as a shield, and only exposes its vulnerable zones for short periods of time.

That makes it tough for the body's immune system to fight the virus.

The three Spanish patients had produced “very effective” viral antibodies, though in a “small quantity” and only against the Zaire strain they were contaminated with.

Delgado, head of microbiology at the hospital, said researchers are aiming to reproduce these antibodies on a larger scale, and in a way that would make them efficient against all five virus strains.

US medical giant Johnson & Johnson is separately developing an experimental vaccine against two Ebola strains.

Delgado said researchers hope to get results from mouse experiments within a year.

The Ebola epidemic caused alarm in Spain in 2014 when a nursing assistant, Teresa Romero, became the first person infected outside Africa.

She caught the disease while tending to a Spanish missionary repatriated from Sierra Leone, who died in Spain in September that year.


Spain’s plans for Canary Ebola hub ‘a joke’

Spain is making it almost impossible for the United Nations to use Canary Islands airports as a hub for humanitarian flights to and from Ebola-hit areas of West Africa, diplomatic sources have said.

Spain's plans for Canary Ebola hub 'a joke'
A girl suspected of having Ebola virus has her temperature checked in Kenema, Sierra Leone, in August. Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP

In September, the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service asked Spain for permission to use Canary Islands airports as a stopover point for aid workers travelling in and out of Ebola-hit parts of West Africa.

Nearly three months later, Spain has responded, but with conditions that make the plan unworkable, diplomatic sources have told Spain's Cadena SER radio station.

Under the proposed protocol, Spain has said "it won't permit entry to anyone coming from the (Ebola-) affected region until they have completed 21 days of quarantine outside of (that region)".

Anyone who has been in the region will be considered "a health risk" and can't be placed in quarantine on Spanish soil, according to the documents seen by Cadena SER.

"It's a joke by Spain directed at the UN," one source allegedly told the radio station, comparing Madrid's stance with that of Senegal which has allowed UN humanitarian flights to use Dakar as a stopover point without imposing such tough restrictions.

"They are putting restrictions on aid workers working in the zone but no restrictions on flights coming from Africa with passenger coming from Dakar of Casablanca, easy-to-use hubs for African passengers who could come from a country with Ebola and then travel on to Spain," one aid worker told Cadena SER.

"They are making it easier for commercial flights than humanitarian flights," he added. 

Spain was declared Ebola-free on Tuesday, according to the criteria set out by the World Health Organization.

The announcement came 42 days after the blood tests of infected Spanish nursing assistant Teresa Romero — the first person known to have contracted Ebola outside Africa — came back negative for the virus. Romero contracted the virus after treated two Spanish missionaries repatriated from Sierra Leone after being diagnosed with Ebola.