GENEVA (AFP) - Thousands of doses of experimental Ebola vaccines could be ready for use in African countries badly hit by the deadly virus early next year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said Friday.
"If everything goes well, we may be able to begin using some of these vaccines in some of the affected countries at the very beginning of next year," said WHO assistant director general Marie-Paule Kieny.
Currently, there is no licenced treatment or vaccine against the virus that has killed nearly 3,000 people in West Africa, and the UN health agency has endorsed rushing experimental prototypes through testing.
WHO is focusing on two vaccines: one made by British company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and the other by US group NewLink Genetics. It is working with both companies to accelerate clinical trials, Kieny told reporters in Geneva.
Another experimental vaccine by US company Johnson & Johnson had not been ruled out, but "they are clearly behind by a few months," Kieny said.
Some clinical trials of the GSK vaccine have begun in the United States and Britain, and other trials are expected to begin in Mali next week.
Trials of the NewLink vaccine are also set to start "imminently" in the United States, and others are planned in other countries, including Germany.
The agency has already said that, if found to be safe, some doses should be available for use to healthcare workers by November and wider use could be possible early next year.
"Before going straight to very vulnerable people in affected countries, we need to know at least whether this is safe in a few hundred volunteers," and whether it is effective, Kieny said.
If shown to be safe, thousands of doses of both experimental vaccines should be available by January.
The Canadian government has already donated 800 vials of the NewLink vaccine to WHO, and Kieny said a few thousand more doses would likely be available in coming months.
Around 10,000 doses of the GSK vaccine should also be available by early 2015, she said.
The two prototype vaccines "have given very promising results in monkeys, but monkeys are not humans," she said, stressing that people who receive them initially "should not consider themselves protected against Ebola".
WHO is also trying to accelerate the development of around half a dozen treatments for the deadly Ebola virus, including the prototype ZMapp drug.
Supplies of that drug, which has been used on a few infected health-care workers with promising results, have run dry.
Kieny said "a few hundred doses" should be available by the end of the year.
"Clearly this is not the kind of scale that will make an impact on the epidemic curve," she said.
It will likely be easier to scale up the use of another possible treatment method endorsed by WHO - the use of convalescent serums and blood and plasma transfusions from people who have survived Ebola.
This method, which counts on boosting antibody defences in those infected, has already been used in a number of cases, including on an American doctor who was released from a Nebraska hospital Thursday after recovering from the Ebola infection contracted in Liberia.
For both the experimental drugs and blood-based treatments already used on humans, it is too early to say anything about their efficiency, since they are not being used systematically and often in combination with other treatments, Kieny said.
Patients also have begun the treatments at different stages of Ebola infection and with very different initial health statuses, she said, explaining why drugs like ZMapp had appeared to cure several people while others died despite taking the treatment.