December 23, 2019

Research Roundup: FDA approves Ebola vaccine, experimental vaccine patch leaves a mark, masquerading virus for vaccine R&D

Ansley Kahn
Senior Program Assistant
PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

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The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved an Ebola vaccine developed by Merck, making it the first Ebola vaccine to be approved in the United States. Merck’s vaccine, Ervebo, protects against the Zaire strain of the virus, which has been the most common cause of Ebola outbreaks and is responsible for the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The decision by FDA to approve Ervebo follows the European Commission’s decision to license the vaccine last month. In securing approval by FDA, Merck also qualifies for a tropical disease priority review voucher. Merck announced it has also submitted Ervebo for approval to regulatory authorities in a number of African countries at risk of having Ebola outbreaks. The vaccine has also been prequalified by the World Health Organization, which could speed up regulatory approval in African countries.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a microneedle patch that, when applied to a person’s skin, can simultaneously deliver a vaccine and embed a record of the vaccine using a pattern of fluorescent nanocrystals. The vaccine record, written in quantum dots that emit near-infrared light that is invisible to the naked eye but readable by a modified smartphone, does not require a link to a database and is not tied to any personal information. This device could help fill a gap in medical record keeping, especially in developing countries where resources to properly document immunizations may be lacking. Still in the prototype stage, the technology has been tested in the skin of human cadavers exposed to a simulated five years of sunlight, and its efficacy at delivering polio vaccine has been confirmed in rats. Further feasibility and human trials will be needed.

Researchers at the University of Queensland and QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute have discovered that a virus can be “masqueraded” to resemble other viruses to help develop new, more effective vaccines against mosquito-borne diseases. The Binjari virus, which affects mosquitoes but is harmless to humans, can have its surface manipulated, so that it resembles other viruses. When these “chimera” Binjari virus cells are then used in vaccines, they prompt an immune response for the virus they are imitating without causing harm from that virus. This chimera virus is also much safer to work with compared to live viruses, which risk breaking biocontainment protocols during research and vaccine production. Researchers also noted that the Binjari virus is easy to re-dress, meaning scientists could quickly develop chimera viruses, reducing the time it takes to respond to an outbreak. Developing safe and effective vaccines for mosquito-borne viruses would be a major scientific breakthrough as vaccine coverage for this disease group is currently very limited.