Ebola vaccine in use thanks to ‘curiosity-driven’ basic research

There was no known widespread outbreaks of Ebola when the vaccine was developed 15 years ago using animals, says Kirk Leech, EARA Executive Director.

There’s a worrying new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — the second the country has faced since the largest-ever Ebola virus epidemic swept West Africa from 2014 to 2015.

The World Health Organization (WHO) learned about the new outbreak in early May, but suspects that, since April, a total of 44 people have been infected with Ebola including 23 deaths. Three of the deaths involved health care workers.

The experimental vaccine was created by the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2003, the vaccine was shown to be effective in monkeys. However, because of a lack of pharmaceutical company interest before the West Africa outbreak, it literally sat on a shelf until it was licensed to Merck in 2014.

The Ebola vaccine, which it is hoped can stem the new outbreak, was developed when there was no public health emergency, and no known widespread outbreak of Ebola. There had only been 1500 cases registered world-wide in the previous three decades. The research involved, and the animals used, were essentially for curiosity-driven, basic research trying to understand, and not for some immediate clinical application.

Yes, we may now have an Ebola vaccine, but as important as this is, that’s not why the research using animals began. It began with a very human, but much maligned (especially when animals are involved) intellectual pursuit to better understand what keeps humans and animals alive and healthy.

Ebola is a viral disease that is transmitted to people from wild animals. The virus is thought to exist naturally in some fruit bats and can be transmitted to humans through bodily fluids of infected animals or through the consumption of ‘bush meat.’ Once the virus is introduced to the human population it spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids of infected people. Symptoms such as fever and bleeding from orifices can be seen after four to ten days, few people survive contact.