Against all odds’: The inside story of how scientists across three continents produced an Ebola vaccine
2020-01-07 from statnews.com
In the spring of 2014, as Ebola exploded across West Africa, a scientist named Gary Kobinger was following the news intently from Canada.
Kobinger was the head of the special pathogens unit at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. He and the team he led had a well-deserved reputation for their work on Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers; Kobinger himself had led development of a promising Ebola therapy.
The Winnipeg lab also had been working for years on an Ebola vaccine, one that looked tremendously effective in animal models. The lab had even produced human-grade vaccine in the hopes of testing it in people. But as of April 2014, that still hadn’t happened. The vaccine had never been deployed in an outbreak. No major pharmaceutical company had expressed interest in developing it.
With Ebola appearing to spread rapidly in a country that had no experience trying to control it — Guinea — Kobinger contacted the World Health Organization to offer the vaccine.
The WHO declined the offer.
“They thought it was premature to advance it,” recalled Kobinger, who said he was told that Guinea lacked the infrastructure to approve use of an experimental vaccine. “That was true,” he added.
The reality was that, for years, scientists who studied Ebola, which belongs to a family of viruses called filoviruses, had poured their hearts into work to develop vaccines and drugs to combat these deadly scourges. And for years, they had seen promising work smash up against unscaleable walls. There was no potential for drug makers to recoup development costs; and, with outbreaks only sporadic, there was little opportunity to subject experimental vaccines to rigorous tests.
But faced with the prospect of Ebola victims lying abandoned in the streets of African cities — and the world’s self-interested realization that the virus rampaging through West Africa wasn’t likely to stay there — the balance would eventually tip.
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