Two potential Ebola vaccines are being tested for safety in clinical trials in the US and Mali. It appears that a full randomized and controlled human study could begin in West Africa early next year. The effort to speed up the trials is unprecedented in vaccine development. The challenges of carrying it out in Africa is huge.
One such vaccine might come from Dr. Nancy J. Sullivan, who works at the National Institute of Health Vaccine Research Center. Before she started working on a potential Ebola vaccine, Dr. Sullivan was doing what many other researchers were doing in the late 90s: Attempting to find a cure for HIV. Believing there were too many biologists focusing on the disease, Sullivan decided to take up a cause in which she believed that she could make a “real difference.” Nearly two decades later, Dr. Sullivan finds her work thrust into the public spotlight after fears of a global pandemic. The only problem: The potential vaccine has yet to be cleared for human testing.
The average vaccine might spend between five and 10 years being tested on animals before getting cleared for human trials. But now circumstances require Dr. Sullivan to ready her potential vaccine for testing by early 2015. The goal: stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa before the disease becomes unstoppable. Naturally, this expedited timetable introduces several ethical questions that must be faced if Dr. Sullivan’s team wishes to make their deadline:
Would vaccines be tested on West Africans? The average test pool must consist of anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 participants. If so, how many people will researchers really be able to monitor? In a land where electricity is a rare luxury and paved roads are equally scarce, is the region even ready to take on such a test?
Compounding the controversy is perhaps the most important question of all: Does the vaccine even work? Early tests conducted on lab monkeys have yielded encouraging results, but that doesn’t guarantee the drug will produce the same result when injected into humans.
Do you think more caution is necessary in the race to develop an Ebola vaccine? Is it ethical to inject some test subjects with placebos in order to control the study? Check out KPCC's FAQ on Ebola!
Tom Burton, Wall Street Journal reporter covering medicine and the FDA for the publication. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 2004.