A clinical trial of an Ebola vaccine has been suspended in all 59 volunteers in Geneva a week early “as a measure of precaution” after four patients complained of joint pains in hands and feet, the University of Geneva hospital said. “They are all fine and being monitored regularly by the medical team leading the study,” the hospital had said.
The human safety trials of the vaccine being developed by the pharmaceutical firms Merck and NewLink, according to The Guardian, UK, are scheduled to resume on 5 January in up to 15 volunteers after checks to ensure that the joint pain symptoms were “benign and temporary”, the hospital added. The decision to suspend the trials comes as health officials in Sierra Leone discovered scores of bodies in a remote diamond-mining area, raising fears of a spike in the number of unreported deaths.
The World Health Organisation said it uncovered a “grim scene” in the eastern district of Kono. Sierra Leone has now overtaken Liberia as the country with the highest number of Ebola cases in west Africa, with 7,897 cases since the beginning of the outbreak. The WHO said that over 11 days “two teams buried 87 bodies, including a nurse, an ambulance driver, and a janitor drafted into removing bodies as they piled up”.
The response team also found 25 people who had died in the past five days piled up in a cordoned-off section of the local hospital. The district of more than 350,000 inhabitants had reported 119 cases up to 9 December. “Our team met heroic doctors and nurses at their wits’ end, exhausted burial teams and lab techs, all doing the best they could but they simply ran out of resources and were overrun with gravely ill people,” said Dr Olu Olushayo, a member of the WHO’s Ebola response team.
A spokeswoman from the Red Cross in Sierra Leone said: “It just shows you how quickly and how easily the virus can spread.” The Red Cross has sent two burial teams to the district from neighbouring Kailahun and has deployed an emergency medical team from its Ebola treatment unit in Kenema, made up of four international and six local health workers. There is no treatment centre in Kono but because of the fears that this could become a new hotspot the workers will help with infection control in the general hospital.
The Sierra Leone authorities said they ordered a two-week “lockdown” in Kono until 23 December, in the hope of containing transmission of the virus. Up to now the number of cases in Kono has been small compared to other districts such as Bombali, Port Loko and Freetown, which have had 890, 973 and 2365 cases respectively. Separately Gavi, the global vaccines alliance, has committed up to $300m (£192m) to buy Ebola vaccines and is ready to begin procurement as soon as the WHO recommends one for use, the alliance said on Thursday.
Up to an additional $90m could also be used to support countries to introduce the vaccines and to rebuild their health systems, it added.
Clinical trials with experimental shots are now underway as experts race to contain an epidemic that has killed more than 6,000 people in west Africa, though there is still uncertainty over how well they will work and how many doses are needed.