Finding the Ebola vaccine, a talk with Professor Adrian Hill

It is 6pm at the Magdalen College New Rooms and every single seat in the room is taken. Everyone is here to hear about the […]

It is 6pm at the Magdalen College New Rooms and every single seat in the room is taken. Everyone is here to hear about the progress of the Ebola vaccine from Professor Adrian Hill, Director of the Jenner Institute. Over the past few months, there hasn’t been a topic in the field of global health larger than the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the packed nature of the room reflects the public’s level of interest.

The rush to find an Ebola vaccine is reflected in the fast-paced timeline of the trial, with funding received from the WHO and a grant for the trial being obtained within a month of submitting the grant by Professor Hill’s team. This is certainly not something we would see for other vaccine trials. The eagerness of the public to volunteer for the vaccine trials is manifested by the large volume of people emailing him to volunteer, resulting in the trial being fully subscribed even before the Jenner Institute started advertising.

The vaccine used in the first Oxford trials are derived from a recombinant viral vector vaccine and was administered in two doses: the first dose uses an adenovirus from the flu virus and the second dose serves to amplify the immune response to the virus. Phase 1 of the Ebola vaccine trial began in Oxford in mid-September with 80 volunteers being administered the first dose. Safety data was generated and the immune responses of the volunteers after being vaccinated looked promising. After Phase 1, the volunteers have to be monitored for a further six months so the Oxford volunteers are still being monitored but no long-term effects have yet been shown.

There have been few side effects reported so far from the trials. The side effects are similar to those of other vaccines and are what we would expect normally from a vaccine, such as mild fever and arm soreness. Like all vaccine trials, placebo groups were included. This was controversial, as it could be seen as some people being denied treatment for Ebola that would have saved their lives. However, placebo groups are necessary to make sure that vaccines aren’t increasing the risk of disease or having any harmful effects.

Trials are also being held in Africa, with the first in Mali with 80 volunteers. Not all African countries want trials to be held, however. The president of Gambia was reluctant to have the word Ebola associated with Gambia for fear of a collapse in the country’s tourism. His fear is not unfounded – tourism really has taken a blow since global interest in the Ebola outbreak began.

Professor Hill emphasises one important point at the end of his talk – that vaccines for outbreak diseases should be continually developed in case there is a large outbreak like the current Ebola one. If developed vaccines are being held ready in stockpiles and a large scale outbreak does happen, a vaccine trial doesn’t have to be rushed and people won’t have to wait as long for a cure. Although the funding for projects for future outbreak diseases might cost a lot initially, the cost of an outbreak will surely be a lot more.

About Chanatjit Cheawsamoot