Irish scientist to lead Ebola trials

Dublin-born Prof Adrian Hill said he was cautiously optimistic that a recently developed vaccine would prove effective

An Irish scientist is to lead trials of the first vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus, following this week’s decision by British authorities to give the required ethical and regulatory approval.

Dublin-born Prof Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, said he was cautiously optimistic the vaccine would prove effective against Ebola, which has killed more than 2,300 people in west Africa this year in the largest outbreak since the virus emerged in the 1970s.

The vaccine, whose development has been fast- tracked in response to the current crisis, will be given to healthy volunteers in the UK, The Gambia and Mali from next week.

The institute is leading a consortium that includes the US National Institutes of Health, GlaxoSmithKline and the World Health Organisation, which has declared the current outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

Prof Hill said he hoped to start vaccinating healthy volunteers within weeks and have first results on the effectiveness of the vaccine by the end of October.

Vaccine safe for humans

The vaccine is made by taking one gene from the Ebola virus and inserting it into a harmless virus to generate an immune response when given to a person. It does not contain infectious Ebola virus material and therefore cannot lead to a vaccinated person becoming infected with the disease.

Prof Hill, a longtime specialist in malaria, said the techniques involved were “routine stuff” for a vaccine lab. It had already provided protection when tested on monkeys without significant adverse effects, though for relatively short periods.

Ebola, he said, was a “scary” virus, but it did not transmit well and outbreaks could be contained if people were isolated. But in the current outbreak, transmission had happened in cities, causing it to spread faster.

Prof Hill, who hails from Ranelagh and studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin, said the speed with which organisations had collaborated in developing the vaccine was unprecedented.

“It’s fantastic. In 20 years working on vaccines, I have never seen anything like this. Maybe we’ll learn something from this for the future about working together.”