17 Sep 2014

UK volunteers step forward in the desperate battle against Ebola

It’s an inch-high, rubber-topped vial just like any other used to store vaccines. But printed in tiny letters on the side of this one are words never associated with a vaccine before: “Ebola cAd3 [Zaire]”

I just witnessed a doctor withdraw a minute dose and inject the first human volunteer in the UK with a dose of this as-yet untested Ebola vaccine.

Just 60 individuals will get the jab in the initial safety trial in Oxford but, unusually for the painstakingly slow process of vaccine development, 10,000 doses are already being made.

The Ebola emergency in West Africa is now so desperate researchers are gambling that their trial will show the vaccine is safe and effective and that, if it is, they will have suitable vaccine standing by to deploy in the field.

With the spread of Ebola now out of control in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the vaccine is probably the only hope for eventually stopping the outbreak.

“We’ve done over 100 vaccine trials in this unit over the years and typically if we get started in 6 months we’re doing very well” said Professor Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. “This time that’s all happened in four weeks.”


Thirty minutes later I catch up with the volunteer Ruth Atkins who, on a normal day works as a communications manager for the NHS. “I feel fine,”  she said.

“My 15-year-old son thought it was Ebola I was being given and asked if I was going to die and where is my will and how much is he going to get,” said Atkins. “But since then I’ve been very much reassured it’s not Ebola I am getting.”

The vaccine is one of two that had been developed experimentally against Ebola in recent years – but never tested in humans.

It contains a small fragment of DNA copied synthetically from the “Zaire” strain of Ebola that has now infected nearly 5000 people and killed at least 2,453 across west Africa.

The Ebola DNA has been combined with a weakened version of the common cold virus which will smuggle the DNA into the recipients’ cells hopefully triggering an immune response to the Ebola virus with no risk of actually contracting the disease.

It experiments in monkeys it gave 100 per cent immunity against Ebola virus disease. “But we need to prove that it works as well in humans,” said Hill.

A parallel trial in the US is also testing the same vaccine and another candidate designed to target both the Zaire and Sudan Ebola strains.

If the first few volunteers in the Oxford trial respond well to the vaccine, further trials in 40 or so volunteers will begin Gambia and Mali within a few weeks.

These are needed to insure the vaccine behaves the same way in the slightly different genetic background of west Africans.

Even so, the parallel trials need to prove the vaccine isn’t just safe, but effective at proving immunity against Ebola in people who live in west Africa. That will take months.

So the vaccine will come too late for the many hundreds of people being newly infected with Ebola each week in west Africa.

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