The “anti-Ebola vaccine” has moved from animal trials in the United Kingdom to direct application in Mali. Health experts at the World Health Organization have decided against the traditional human trials using a “double-blind” methodology, where both the doctor and the patient are unclear as to whether the treatment is essentially normal with a placebo, or includes an experimental treatment. This is a continuation of the World Health Organization’s declaration in August that it would be ethical to give Ebola patients untested treatments.
Zmapp has established itself along with the drug Brincidofovir for use in treating patients infected with Ebola. So far, both have had pretty impressive results: increasing survival rates for both monkeys and humans. But, waiting for people to become infected means allowing the virus more chances to mutate (which it is already doing at a rate far more quickly than expected), so attention has also been directed towards creating a vaccine.
So although Ebola is not nearly as contagious measles or the flu, or even mumps, its relatively high case-fatality ratio (death rate) of about 60% has pushed it towards the forefront in the application of experimental treatments. Now, with a green light from the WHO, three aid workers in Mali have been immunized with the experimental new Ebola vaccine.
Although Mali is not currently seeing an outbreak, its shared border with Guinea (where this Ebola outbreak first started) makes it a prime candidate for testing the effectiveness of the vaccine.
It is too early to talk about whether the vaccine is effective or not, although it may be reasonable to debate its usefulness. Because although Ebola is scary, it is not particularly contagious and is relatively easily contained in nations with functional health infrastructure. No outbreak of any member of the Filoviridae family (to which Ebola and Marburg viruses belong) has ever resulted in a major pandemic or “gone airborne.” Even Soviet attempts to deliberately weaponize the Marburg virus failed to make it significantly more contagious than the current Ebola strain.
So how good an idea this is depends on how effective the vaccine is, and what (if any) side effects it has. Although it may be extremely useful for aid workers and doctors, it is likely not advisable or necessary for the general population. If it is found to be effective with humans, it will probably be considered a life-saver for aid workers in Africa.