It took just nine months from the fi rst recorded instance of the current strain of Ebola in West Africa in December 2013 for the epidemic to be declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO). By January 2015, it had killed more than 10,000 people.
Previous outbreaks had been controlled through containment and isolation, but this strain appeared different and required preventative medicine.
GSK, which has a stated mission to improve the quality of human life, was one of the first organisations to respond to the outbreak, providing humanitarian support in the affected regions, such as providing critical supplies and equipment, and accelerating the development of its Ebola candidate vaccine.
Vaccines typically take between ten and 15 years to develop, but such was the crisis posed by Ebola that GSK condensed that development period to just ten months. As the emergency was declared in August 2014, GSK began manufacturing tens of thousands of doses at the same time as embarking on clinical trials.
Phase 1 of the trials took place in November 2014. These involved 200 volunteers in Mali, Switzerland, UK and the US, and studied the safety of the vaccine and also whether it generated a good immune response to Ebola in humans.
Once these trials suggested the vaccine has an acceptable safety profile and could produce an immune response against Ebola in humans, GSK shipped the first batch to Liberia in January 2015. Within two months, the vaccine had been given to 2,000 healthy adults and children in West Africa while 30,000 volunteers, including frontline healthcare workers, were inoculated in Liberia.
Some cynics might suggest that these initiatives are what drugs companies should do in times of crisis, but GSK has been quietly working behind the scenes in less developed countries providing medicines, vaccines and healthcare products to people regardless of whether they are able to pay for years.
It has partnered with mobile phone companies to educate people in these areas about free clinics and vaccination programmes, all without fanfare.
But it is its long-standing partnerships with non-governmental organisations, such as Save the Children, Direct Relief and AmeriCares, that allowed the drugs company to mobilise its
response so quickly to the crisis. Led by GSK chief executive Sir Andrew Witty, these partners worked closely to ensure that critical supplies and equipment, such as protective clothing for aid workers, reached the affected regions swiftly. GSK also funded an education programme, managed by Save the Children, which used radio messages, posters and workshops, to inform communities on basic hygiene and break down taboos.
The drugs company also brought together an unprecedented international consortium of private and public partners, such as the Swiss government and The Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation, to ensure that funds worth £25 million were available to facilitate the manufacturing process.
It would have been impossible for GSK to fast track the development of a vaccine alone, as such an initiative requires multiple processes occurring simultaneously that otherwise would be conducted sequentially. Its partnerships proved invaluable. There was never any doubt in GSK’s mind that this was the right thing to do: thousands of people in West Africa are pleased that it did.
In May 2015, Liberia was declared Ebola-free.