Ebola vac­cine with prom­ise skid­ded to halt

No gov­ern­ment tri­als funded since Bush

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

The pitch was in­trigu­ing: U.S. health of­fi­cials wanted to fast-track tri­als for an Ebola vac­cine and sounded the call for vol­un­teers.

Charles Sul­li­van called up the hot­line on a whim, fig­ur­ing the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health al­ready had filled its queue and wouldn’t need him. But he was ac­cepted for three rounds of shots of a de­ac­ti­vated virus, a year’s worth of blood anal­y­sis and a $900 check for his trou­ble. The clin­i­cal trial went well, and the vac­cine seemed promis­ing.

A decade later, the coun­try is still wait­ing for a vac­cine amid a world­wide Ebola out­break, and Mr. Sul­li­van is won­der­ing what hap­pened to the re­search con­ducted on him and 27 other test sub­jects in 2003.

“It seems like they’re fast-track­ing the same thing they were fast-track­ing a decade ago,” said Mr. Sul­li­van, a 51-year-old res­i­dent of Rockville, Maryland.

The lat­est out­break has killed more than 4,000 peo­ple in West Africa, in­fected Americans on U.S. soil for the first time, and left po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and health of­fi­cials clam­or­ing for a vac­cine.

Treat­ment op­tions for those who are in­fected are also limited. An ex­per­i­men­tal drug, ZMapp, was given to Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Write­bol, Amer­i­can aid work­ers who con­tracted Ebola in West Africa. Yet sup­plies of the drug, de­rived from to­bacco plants, have been ex­hausted and must be re­built.

Fed­eral health of­fi­cials have blamed poor fund­ing for the lack of a vac­cine. NIH Di­rec­tor Dr. Fran­cis Collins told The Huff­in­g­ton Post that the coun­try prob­a­bly would have had a vac­cine if not for bud­get cuts, and the NIH’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases backed up that claim in a state­ment to The Wash­ing­ton Times.

“The loss of NIH pur­chas­ing power over the last 10 years, es­pe­cially with se­ques­tra­tion, has slowed down bio­med­i­cal re­search in vir­tu­ally all ar­eas. NIH-funded Ebola re­search would be fur­ther along if that had not hap­pened,” the in­sti­tute said. “NIH re­searchers found it dif­fi­cult (un­til re­cently, with [Glax­oSmithK­line]) to iden­tify an in­dus­trial part­ner, which is crit­i­cal for scaleup of vac­cine pro­duc­tion. Be­cause of the ex­tremely limited mar­ket po­ten­tial prior to the 2014 out­break, there was lit­tle in­dus­trial in­ter­est in an Ebola vac­cine.”

Gov­ern­ment records show that the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases ran Ebola vac­cine tri­als in 2003, 2006 and 2008, but none dur­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s two terms — un­til now.

Mr. Sul­li­van thought the 2003 trial in which he took part was a suc­cess, and he thinks the gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­larly the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion, missed an op­por­tu­nity to de­velop an Ebola vac­cine as the war on ter­ror­ism waned.

“We fast-tracked then for al Qaeda. Now we’re fast-track­ing it be­cause of Thomas Eric Dun­can,” Mr. Sul­li­van said, re­fer­ring to the Liberian na­tional who car­ried the dis­ease to the U.S. and died in a Texas hos­pi­tal Oct. 8. “It’s sad that as a na­tion we can’t keep our eye on the ball long enough to follow through.”

He said he had to sign le­gal waivers be­fore join­ing the study group, which ac­cord­ing to NIH doc­u­ments was two-thirds male and 96 per­cent white. The re­searchers, whom he de­scribed as ded­i­cated to their task and re­spon­sive, told him he would get ei­ther the vac­cine or a placebo, used as a con­trol.

The shot looked like a large car­bon diox­ide car­tridge but did not hurt at all, he said, and the one side ef­fect he ex­pe­ri­enced was a drip from the punc­ture point that looked like pink paint.

By 2006, the NIH re­vealed that he had been given the vac­cine, not the con­trol placebo. A sci­en­tific re­port on the study read: “This Ebola virus DNA vac­cine was safe and im­muno­genic in hu­mans.”

Years later, Mr. Sul­li­van feels like he is watch­ing reruns.

“It’s the same cast of char­ac­ters in­volved,” he said, “and it doesn’t seem like they’ve been mov­ing the ball for­ward.”

In 2003, of­fi­cials at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases seemed en­thu­si­as­tic about their prospects, cheer­ing the first hu­man trial of a vac­cine to pre­vent Ebola in­fec­tion as a cru­cial part of an­tibioter­ror­ism ef­forts in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks.

“This trial is fur­ther ev­i­dence of the abil­ity of the [Vac­cine Re­search Cen­ter] to rapidly trans­late ba­sic re­search into tan­gi­ble prod­ucts,” Dr. An­thony S. Fauci, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases, said at the time.

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