GENEVA -- A batch of experimental Ebola vaccine was set to arrive in Switzerland from Canada on Tuesday as researchers scramble to beat the deadly disease that has west Africa in its grip.
Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director general of the World Health Organization, said the 800 vials would arrive by plane Tuesday and be transferred Wednesday to the Geneva University Hospital.
"It's better to keep them in a central pool than to start to spread them around and then to try to keep track of whether of all the mini-stocks we have have been kept at the right temperature," Kieny told reporters.
The vaccine must be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius (-112 degrees Fahrenheit).
Canada has offered the Geneva-based WHO 800 vials -- each believed to contain about two doses -- of the rVSV vaccine developed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
Licenced by the Canadian government to US firm NewLink Genetics, rVSV is one of two experimental Ebola vaccines identified by the WHO as having shown promising results when tested on monkeys.
The other vaccine, ChAd3, is made by British company GlaxoSmithKline (IW 1000/100).
Kieny said both are "lead candidates" to fight Ebola, which has claimed more than 4,500 lives since the deadliest epidemic in history began in Guinea in December.
West Africa Is Epicenter
The overwhelming majority of the deaths and the 9,200 registered cases have been in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but infections in countries including the United States and Spain have sparked fears of a wider spread.
Clinical trials of rVSV began in the United States in September, involving around 10 volunteers, said Kieny.
WHO-coordinated trials are set to begin in Geneva, in Germany, Gabon and Kenya, she added.
ChAd3, meanwhile, is being tested in the United States, Britain and Mali, with further trials poised to begin at the Vaud University Hospital in the Swiss city of Lausanne.
"We're waiting for the green light from Swissmedic before we get started," hospital spokesman Darcy Christen said, referring to the national regulator.
Each Swiss trial is set to involve some 120 volunteers, with the combined 240 representing half the global total deployed to test the two drugs.
Kieny underlined that volunteers did not risk catching Ebola, since the vaccines contained just a single protein of the virus.
'As Much Vaccine as Possible'
The trials are a key step because they will help determine both the safety of the vaccines and how great an immune response they are able to generate against Ebola.
"This data is absolutely crucial to allow decision-making for what dose level" should then be used for further testing in Africa, Kieny said.
"Why is that so important? Well, we all want to have as much vaccine as possible," she added. "And as much vaccine as possible depends on the quantity of vaccine that you need to put in one dose."
The lower the dose required for an effective anti-Ebola shot, the easier it will be for producers to turn out the huge amounts required.
While the trials of both rVSV and ChAd3 are expected to continue for between six months and a year, initial results are expected to allow experts to set a dose level by the end of December.
The goal, said Kieny, is to be able to ship initial supplies to Africa by early 2015.
"There is a very strong movement now from governments of many countries to push as quickly as possible these vaccines into real-world use," she said.
Mass vaccination campaigns were not on the cards yet, she noted.
A key aim is to help guard health workers against Ebola -- some 240 have died so far as they strive to care for desperate patients.
"It's one thing to say we'll vaccinate healthcare workers," Kieny cautioned. "But it's another thing to do it, because this is a very fragile situation in the countries. Politically it's not very stable. There are safety issues, concerns about logistics also. This needs a lot of community mobilization."
By Jonathan Fowler
Copyright Agence France-Presse 2014