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WHO: Ebola cases may be as high as 20, vaccine could reach Congo within a week

The World Health Organization said May 18 that an experimental vaccine for Ebola, which could help stem the spread of the deadly virus that has infected as many as 20 people so far, could be available within a week once it has been given the green light by the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"We do have a very promising vaccine candidate," Peter Salama, WHO executive director of the health emergencies program, told reporters on a conference call. "In order to deploy this vaccine, we need the full acquiescence of the regulatory regime of the DRC."

Following laboratory confirmation of the first case of Ebola on May 11, the WHO said there are now 18 suspected cases — and two deaths — in the remote Likati zone of Bas Uele province, which borders the Central African Republic. The WHO has been able to move rapidly to set up the first Ebola treatment center, and establish the surveillance and tracking of people who have been in contact with any of the suspected victims, thanks to a $10 million contingency fund for emergencies.

Partners including the UN, UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières are also helping the WHO to overcome the logistical challenges of accessing the remote region, which lies some 1,400 kilometers from the country's capital Kinshasa and lacks functioning telecommunications and road systems. Furthermore, the Lord's Resistance Army is active in the area, and there are many displaced people, the WHO said.

"The logistics of this operation are going to be the biggest challenge," Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa, said on the conference call.

Although there is no licensed vaccine for Ebola, Merck & Co. Inc.'s experimental vaccine was found to be highly protective against the deadly virus in a trial carried out on nearly 12,000 people in nearby Guinea in 2015. The vaccine itself could be available "within two or three days" once the logistics are in place, which include having trained healthcare professionals on site and adequate storage for the vaccine which needs to be kept at negative 80 degrees Celsius.

"This is still an experimental vaccine," Moeti said. "We are optimistic [the Democratic Republic of Congo] will work with us to consider and make that decision on this vaccine."

The $10 million contingency fund was established following the last outbreak of the deadly disease in 2014-2016 and is expected to last six months. It has been used to fund light aircraft and mobile laboratories to speed up confirmation of the virus, according to the WHO. The international group added that, while it is monitoring reports of other outbreaks in the country, it does not think they are linked.

The international agency has not issued a global travel warning as the area is so remote. "The challenge is actually to travel there and be able to operate," Moeti said. "Even getting to Kinshasa is hard."