The Ebola epidemic in West Africa could infect more than 20,000 people, the U.N. health agency said on Thursday, warning that an international effort costing almost half a billion dollars is needed to overcome the outbreak.
As the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its strategic plan for combating the virus, GlaxoSmithKline said an experimental Ebola vaccine is being fast-tracked into human studies and it plans to produce up to 10,000 doses for emergency deployment if the results are good.
The WHO estimates it will take six to nine months to halt the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, while Nigeria said on Thursday that a doctor indirectly linked to the Liberian-American who brought the disease to the country had died in Port Harcourt, Africa's largest energy hub.
So far 3,069 cases have been reported in the outbreak but the WHO said the actual number in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria could already be two to four times higher.
"This is not a West Africa issue. This is a global health security issue," Bruce Aylward, the WHO's Assistant Director-General for Polio, Emergencies and Country Collaboration, told reporters in Geneva.
With a fatality rate of 52 percent, the death toll stood at 1,552 as of Aug. 26. That is nearly as high as the total from all recorded outbreaks since Ebola was discovered in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.
The figures do not include deaths from a separate Ebola outbreak announced at the weekend in Congo, which has been identified as a different strain of the virus.
Aylward said tackling the epidemic would cost an estimated $490 million, involving thousands of local staff and 750 international experts. "It is a big operation. We are talking (about) well over 12,000 people operating over multiple geographies and high-risk circumstances. It is an expensive operation," he said.
The operation marks a major ramping up of the response by the WHO, which had been accused by some aid agencies of reacting too slowly to the outbreak.
A wider United Nations -led plan being launched by the end of September is expected to provide support for the secondary effects of the outbreak on food security, water, sanitation, primary and secondary healthcare and education, the WHO said.
Early this month, the WHO called the current Ebola outbreak an "international health emergency". Concerns that the disease could spread beyond West Africa have led to the use of drugs still under development for the treatment of a handful of cases.
Two American health workers, who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Liberia, received an experimental therapy called ZMapp, a cocktail of antibodies made by tiny California biotech Mapp Biopharmaceutical. They recovered and were released from hospital last week.