An Ebola Vaccine May Be on the Way

Clinical trials begin next week.

A microscopic view of of the Ebola virus.
National Journal
Sam Baker
Aug. 28, 2014, 6:50 a.m.

Gov­ern­ment sci­ent­ists will be­gin hu­man tri­als next week on a pos­sible Ebola vac­cine, after tak­ing “ex­traordin­ary meas­ures” to de­vel­op the drug quickly.

The vac­cine has per­formed “ex­tremely well” in an­im­al tests, said An­thony Fauci, the dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health’s in­fec­tious dis­eases unit. It’s de­signed to in­ocu­late pa­tients from two strains of Ebola, in­clud­ing the one re­spons­ible for the out­break in West Africa that has killed more than 1,500 people.

Des­pite the meas­ures taken to speed up the de­vel­op­ment pro­cess, Fauci said it’s “im­possible to pre­dict” when a vac­cine might be ready and ap­proved for use by health care work­ers headed to West Africa.

The ini­tial round of hu­man tri­als will fo­cus on the drug’s safety. Ul­ti­mately, 20 pa­tients will re­ceive the drug at NIH’s fa­cil­it­ies in Mary­land, where sci­ent­ists will de­term­ine wheth­er the drug is safe and wheth­er it pro­vokes the same “im­mune re­sponse” in hu­mans that it does in chim­pan­zees. Test sub­jects won’t be giv­en Ebola, and they can­not be­come in­fec­ted with the vir­us by tak­ing the vac­cine, Fauci said.

He said NIH will have the res­ults from this study by the end of the year. The next steps will de­pend on those res­ults as well as the state of the Ebola out­break.

Ini­tial hu­man tests are also set to be­gin soon for at least three oth­er po­ten­tial vac­cines.

De­vel­op­ing a vac­cine is dif­fer­ent from de­vel­op­ing a treat­ment for in­fec­ted pa­tients, Fauci stressed dur­ing a con­fer­ence call with re­port­ers. Ex­per­i­ment­al treat­ments have been provided to Ebola pa­tients dur­ing the cur­rent out­break even though they’ve nev­er been tested in hu­mans””be­cause if you already have Ebola, you don’t have much to lose from tak­ing a drug that might not work.

But be­cause vac­cines are ad­min­istered to healthy people, there’s a high­er bar to make sure they work, or at least aren’t dan­ger­ous. “The worst thing you could do,” Fauci said, is to re­lease a vac­cine that hasn’t been tested for safety and ends up mak­ing healthy people sick or more sus­cept­ible to Ebola.

“You really can’t pre­dict what you might see,” he said.

NIH de­veloped the drug in col­lab­or­a­tion with Glaxo­S­mithK­line. Get­ting a large drug com­pany in­volved helps en­sure that the vac­cine can be pro­duced in large quant­it­ies, Fauci said. Some ex­per­i­ment­al treat­ments were de­veloped by smal­ler firms that have run out of their products.

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