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Health Officials Hope To Speed Up Possible Ebola Cures

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The number of deaths from Ebola in West Africa has surpassed 2,000. And this unprecedented outbreak continues to grow. One reason the virus is so terrifying is that there's no vaccine to protect people and no available medicine to treat people. Officials at the World Health Organization hope that will change. Their plan is to quickly test experimental vaccines and therapies during this outbreak. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, the WHO just wrapped up a hastily-arranged meeting in Geneva to figure out what needs to be done.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Officials at WHO say they see two promising candidates for vaccines. Volunteers in the U.S. started getting doses of one this week and safety tests of the other will start very soon. Marie-Paule Kieny is assistant director general at WHO. She says we could know if the vaccines are safe by November.

MARIE-PAULE KIENY: After that, these vaccines will start to be rolled out in the affected countries starting with healthcare workers and other frontline staff in the affected country. So this is real. This is going into the field. This is not staying in laboratories.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She spoke to the press after a two-day conference that brought together a couple hundred experts from around the world, including officials from the countries hit by Ebola and researchers from government labs and biomedical companies. The group agreed that a top priority for treatment is so-called convalescent serum, using the blood of people who've survived Ebola and have developed immunity, as a therapy for people stricken with the disease.

KIENY: There was a consensus that this has a good chance to work and that also this is something that can be produced now from the affected countries themselves.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She said five to 10 other experimental therapies might be tested in Ebola treatment centers in West Africa. Michael Kurilla heads a bio-defense research office at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says there's a slew of possible treatments in development, but supplies are limited.

MICHAEL KURILLA: One I think that the public might be most familiar with is ZMapp. This was the one originally described as a secret serum.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A few people sick with Ebola did get this experimental therapy. But there's no more of it. In the next six months, Kurilla expects to see only a few hundred doses of this serum. And he says historically the vast majority of therapies that make it into initial human tests never get approved as treatments.

KURILLA: Because they're found to be deficient in many ways. And so it is because of some of that that people feel you need to be especially cautious.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What's more, it won't be easy to do clinical trials in patients with Ebola when healthcare workers in West Africa are already overwhelmed. Estrella Lasry is with Doctors without Borders.

ESTRELLA LASRY: We're sometimes unable to give patients IVs. We're sometimes unable to give patients all of the care that we could have available and that is relatively simple.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She notes that as things stand now, without any drug for Ebola, about half of those who get this disease do survive. And if healthcare organizations had the staff and facilities to better support people through their illness, even more might live.

LASRY: If you're going to put them at risk of not surviving because of using a new drug where you don't have a guarantee of the safety, then the do-no-harm principle is not being kept.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her organization is willing to help test new drugs in the sickest patients who have no other hope of survival if studies are set up in a rigorous, ethical way. And as far as vaccines go...

LASRY: We would be very concerned about the safety before trying it on anyone who's healthy.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Plus, she says, the effort to test experimental strategies shouldn't detract from the urgent need to do more of what we know does work. The hard-hit countries are desperate for more doctors, nurses and public health workers to fight Ebola. Everyone agrees on that. Keiji Fukuda is with the World Health Organization.

KEIJI FUKUDA: The issue right now is taking the tools that we have - infection control, finding cases, trying to get people into treatment - and pushing on those as much as possible while we wait for the work on the vaccines and medicines to go forward.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it would be great to have a medicine or vaccine for Ebola. But the world can't count on that to stop this outbreak. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.