A biopharmaceutical company in central Iowa is stepping up its efforts to create a vaccine for the Ebola virus, which has killed more than 930 people in western Africa and has infected hundreds more. Dr. Charles Link, president and CEO of NewLink Genetics in Ames, says his firm has already been working on an Ebola treatment for years, but a new contract has just been signed that will expedite their research.

“This is what’s called a letter contract,” Dr. Link says. “It’s very unusual to be contacted by the Department of Defense that they want to speed up a project. Normally, there’s an application and a very long period of review. Because of the urgency, we were contacted directly to see how can you speed up the project.”

Link confirms, the initial contract is for one-million dollars. He says, “It’s really the first part of the money in that there’s a much greater expanded contract that will then be negotiated to implement a broader array of activity to try to move the vaccine as rapidly and safely as possible into the clinic.” Link says NewLink Genetics is going to work round-the-clock to make and test vaccines that could both treat people who are infected and prevent the spread of the virus, or at least slow it down.

Ultimately, the vaccine would be shipped to Africa. The hope is to have the first human studies this year, but “nothing is guaranteed because you have to make sure you have all the exact right groups of safety data before you test any biological agent for the first time in human beings, but that’s our goal.” Two American health care workers who contracted the disease in Liberia are now being treated in Atlanta. Americans are advised to avoid Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

(Reporting by Pat Powers, KQWC, Webster City)