A World Health Organization official says the first ebola vaccine could be available in 2015. It’s being developed by GlaxoSmithKline.

However, the drug giant says “it’s too early” to speculate on timing. 

As the health emergency spreads in Africa, GSK (NYSE: GSK) says it continues to work on a potential vaccine based on technology it acquired in 2013.

On Saturday, Marie-Paule Kieny, an assistant director general of the World Health Organization, told the news agency AFP that clinical trials were expected to begin in the near future.

Also, the head of immunization and vaccines at WHO said a vaccine could be available in 2015, according to The Independent newspaper in London, which cited other media reports.

An unnamed GSK spokesperson downplayed the reports. 

“GSK and the VRC appreciate the very serious nature of the current Ebola outbreak, however, our vaccine candidate is at a very early stage of development and is not yet ready for use in these circumstances,” the spokesperson said. 

GSK’s Statement

At a website set up to track the ebola outbreak, GSK outlined its commitment to finding a vaccine.

“We are working with the US National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC) to advance development of an early stage vaccine candidate for Ebola,” the company said.

“GSK acquired the vaccine candidate when we purchased Okairos in May 2013.In collaboration with VRC, we have evaluated this vaccine candidate in pre-clinical studies and we are now discussing with regulators advancing it to a phase I clinical trial programme later this year.Clinical development for a new vaccine is a long, complex process, often lasting 10 or more years. It is difficult to accelerate this process because of the many important steps that a candidate vaccine must go through to ensure that it is safe and effective.”

GSK operates its North American headquarters in RTP. 

Other Efforts

Meanwhile, in Spain, an experimental drug from the U.S. is being used to treat a missionary priest who was evacuated from Liberia last week after testing positive for the killer virus.

The Health Ministry announced Monday that the ZMapp drug, made by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. of San Diego, was obtained in Geneva this weekend and brought to Madrid to treat Miguel Pajares. The 75-year-old priest was evacuated from Liberia and placed in isolation Thursday at Madrid’s Carlos III Hospital.

There is no known cure or licensed treatment for Ebola, which has killed more than 1,000 people in the current outbreak in West Africa. The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak an international health emergency and urged nations worldwide to donate resources to battle the disease.

Two Americans diagnosed with Ebola in Liberia and evacuated back to the United States have been treated with the drug. One of them, Dr. Kent Brantly, said last week that his condition was improving and the husband of the aid worker being treated with Brantly said the same thing. Both are being treated in isolation at an Atlanta hospital.

The ethical questions surrounding experimental Ebola drugs and vaccines were being debated Monday during a teleconference of medical ethicists and other experts organized by WHO.

At least one country in West Africa has expressed interest; Nigeria’s health minister, Onyenbuchi Chukwu, said at a news conference last week that he had asked U.S. health officials about access but was told the manufacturer would have to agree.

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said “there are virtually no doses available,” a CDC spokesman said last week, before the announcement that Spain was also using the drug.

Because the ZMapp drug has never been tested in humans, scientists say there’s no way to tell if it has made any difference to the two American aid workers who have so far received it.

The drug is a mixture of three antibodies engineered to recognize Ebola and bind to infected cells so the immune system can kill them. Scientists culled antibodies from laboratory mice and ZMapp’s maker now grows the antibodies in tobacco plants and then purifies them. It takes several months to even produce a modest amount of the drug.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)