Ebola has burst back onto the global radar—and Merck's experimental vaccine is being put to the test

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday sent the first 4,000 doses of an experimental Ebola virus vaccine to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where an outbreak of the virus has killed a suspected 20 people since April.

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The DRC government on May 8 declared an Ebola outbreak. According to Reuters, health care workers in DRC have reported two confirmed cases of Ebola, 22 probable cases of the virus, and 17 suspected Ebola cases in three zones of DRC's Equateur province. Workers also have identified 432 people who might have come in contact with the virus, Reuters reports.

About the vaccine

Merck developed the vaccine, which is not yet licensed, in response to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa and infected several U.S. residents, including health care providers who cared for Ebola patients abroad and two nurses who cared for an Ebola patient in the United States. According to a CDC report published in 2016, a total of 11 people were treated for the virus in the United States during the 2014-2016 outbreak, with two fatalities.

DRC's Health Ministry said residents could begin receiving the vaccines this weekend, which will mark the first time the vaccine will be used since it was created in 2016, Reuters reports. According to NPR's "Goats and Soda," the vaccine, which Merck donated, appeared to be effective during limited trials conducted in West Africa in 2015. Ira Longini, a biostatistician at the University of Florida who helped run the trial, said 7,500 people were given the vaccine, and "not a single person that was vaccinated got infected" with the Ebola virus.

WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said the first batch of the vaccine will be administered in "rings," which involves vaccinating any individuals who were in close proximity to a confirmed case of Ebola, as well as any individuals who came in contact with those who were in close proximity to the confirmed case.

"In our experience, for each confirmed case of Ebola there are about 100-150 contacts and contacts of contacts eligible for vaccination," Jasarevic said, adding, "So it means this first shipment would be probably enough for around 25-26 rings—each around one confirmed case."

Jasarevic said DRC expects to receive another batch of 4,000 doses of the vaccine in the coming days.

According to Reuters, WHO said it also sent 300 body bags to DRC to ensure safe burials in communities affected by the outbreak, as well as 1,500 sets of personal protective equipment and an emergency sanitary kit that could be used for 10,000 people for three months. WHO and other organizations also have sent epidemiologists, individuals skilled at contact tracing, and anthropologists to affected areas, STAT News reports (Branswell, STAT News, 5/13; Knowles, Becker's Clinical Leadership & Infection Control, 5/15; Aizenman, "Goats and Soda," NPR, 5/15; Mwarabu et al., Reuters, 5/16; Bell et al., CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 7/8/2016).

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