Professor Adrian Hill of Oxford's Jenner Institute led the first clinical trial of a successful Ebola virus vaccine last year. To target the outbreak his remarkable team compressed a process that takes six months into six weeks.
The recent Ebola outbreak was the deadliest since the virus' discovery in the 1970s. Fortunately Professor Adrian Hill, Director of Oxford's Jenner Institute, and his team managed to create a vaccine response in record time.
At his Alumni Weekend talk, Professor Hill described the desperate situation that West Africa was in last year. Ebola was in the news every day, with death tolls spiralling up through the summer. There were no vaccines known to protect against Ebola, or drugs to treat those infected at the time. Promising vaccine candidates did exist in the US, but only one had been tested in humans and had been subsequently abandoned.
Usually Ebola outbreaks have been contained using the traditional methods of containment in Central Africa, but it was spreading through the continent rapidly - in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia - in 2014. With no vaccines ready to be tested out in West Africa the situation was grave, Professor Hill explained.
The resulting ambitious trial at Oxford was funded by the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and Department for International Development. Phase one began in mid-September 2014 with 60 volunteers, and a further 80 out in Mali in October - after the team was swamped with volunteers anxious to help.
For the successful vaccine Professor Hill's team used a single Ebola gene in a chimpanzee adenovirus to generate an immune response. As it did not contain any infectious virus material, it did not cause the patient to become infected. The trial's efficiency exceeded all expectations, with a novel vaccine ready from the trial to finished product in nine months.
The researchers then used an innovative trial design in West Africa, in which the family, friends and contacts in a ‘ring’ around an Ebola patient would be given the vaccine. In March 2015, the first infected individuals were identified and the ring vaccination began in Guinea, which continues to have the majority of cases. Both this 'ring' approach and the vaccine were a great success.
Looking to the future, Professor Hill reflected that it would be wonderful if Britain could manufacture vaccines 'on a significant scale' once again. David Cameron has promised £20million to protect Britain from future pandemics this year, but how that money will be allocated has not yet been decided.
Professor Hill explained more broadly the challenges left facing vaccination development. On the positive side, only two countries in the world are left with polio, and smallpox has been eradicated. This leaves the big three vaccinations to find as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and an improved TB jab.
In terms of Ebola itself, the vaccine that Professor Hill's team worked on was for the Zaire strain, but there still remains to be one for the Sudan strain. He pointed out that there will 'almost certainly' be more major outbreaks, especially as Africa's population increases, people travel more and cities expand.
For all of the team's hard work, the University decided that their contributions should be recognised, and commissioned a University of Oxford Ebola medal this summer. The medals were presented by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, and the head of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, Professor Peter Ratcliffe. Professor Hamilton reflected: ‘The work of the team was absolutely critical. These kinds of outbreaks can arise at any time and we need to be ready to respond. They responded magnificently.’
For further details about the Jenner Institute click here.
Photographs courtesy of Oxford University Images