Because Ebola virus is so dangerous, producing and testing a vaccine is extremely challenging for the scientists. One significant factor slowing down progress has been that there are only a very limited number of high containment facilities with staff capable and authorised to conduct the research.
“Ebola virus is a Biosafety Level 4 threat, along with many other haemorrhagic fever viruses”, says Dr Sanchez. “As well as the difficulty in getting the right staff and facilities, vaccines for viruses like Ebola, Marburg and Lassa fever have been difficult to produce because simple ‘killed’ viruses that just trigger an antibody response from the blood are not effective. For these viruses we need to get a cell-mediated response, which involves our bodies producing killer T-cells before immunity is strong enough to prevent or clear an infection.”
The researchers have now used several different recombinant DNA techniques, which have allowed them to trigger a cell-mediated response and produce a vaccine that is effective in non-human primates. One of the candidate vaccines is about to be tested on people for the first time, after entering Phase 1 clinical trials in autumn 2006.
I'm old enough to still remember the early 90s, when movies like Outbreak and books like The Hot Zone had a firm grip on the popular imagination. There was a mystique about these deadly diseases that people just found utterly compelling. I can't really speculate why, except to say that that maybe it's the same reason people find serial killers compelling too: We long to know why/how they do what they do. But, like serial killers, we'll probably never understand any of them completely. We just need to be able to stop them.
Here's wishing Dr. Sanchez good luck at the CDC today, where he'll be presenting Ebola vaccine developments!
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