Canadian-made Ebola vaccine could have saved more lives if research was funded earlier, microbiologist says
Vaccine approval process also called the 'valley of death, where bright ideas go to die', says Steven Jones
In 2005, microbiologist Steven Jones was part of a medical team in Angola, which was in the midst of an outbreak of Marburg, Ebola's sister virus.
The team had samples of an experimental vaccine, developed by Jones and researchers in Winnipeg to treat Ebola and Marburg, with them. But clinical tests weren't yet complete, so they couldn't use it on infected patients, even though preliminary research had shown it to be effective as early as 2003, Jones says.
That restriction sparked a tense confrontation with a military doctor.
"He begged us to use it and we had to tell him no. And it was an extremely difficult conversation, because nothing else had been working," Jones, associate provost of health at the University of Saskatchewan Health Sciences, told The Current's guest host Matt Galloway.
The vaccine, also known as VSV-ZEBOV, is currently being used to combat an Ebola outbreak in Congo, which has killed at least 1,900 people in the last year. But Jones believes it could have been used to save more lives if governments and pharmaceutical companies committed to greater funding and support years earlier.
The 2005 Marburg outbreak in Angola killed 329 people, with a nearly 90 per cent case fatality rate of those infected. Jones believes that if he were able to use the vials of the vaccine they had on hand, they might have saved "at least half" of the lives lost.
A long regulatory process
But he recognizes the need for meticulous testing and research to ensure a new vaccine is proven safe to use on humans.
That process, however, takes a lot of money and the political will to keep that money flowing, he says, adding it has been coined the "valley of death: where bright ideas go to die."
Jones and his team requested $6 million from Canada's CBRNE Research and Technology Initiative (CIRT) to develop vaccines for Marburg and Ebola, but only received $2 million in 2006, specifically for the Ebola vaccine. It wouldn't last through the series of required clinical trials.
"We were not funded to do the clinical trials, because those start to get more expensive," he said.
"At the time, I thought the decision was wrong. I still think the decision was wrong, but I understand why it was made."
Jones said members of the Canadian government, including then-chief public health officer David Butler Jones, supported his team's work "vigorously."
But the disease's impact, which was seen largely overseas, did not make the government's list of long-term funding priorities, he says.
"On behalf of the government, there are multiple problems, which they're trying to solve. And it's a question of: 'Which one do we want to invest taxpayers' money in?'"
In 2014, the Canadian government pledged $30 million in aid and shipped 800 vials of VSV-ZEBOV to the World Health Organization in Geneva. At the time, West Africa was in the midst of the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, which claimed more than 11,000 lives by its end in 2016.
By 2010, the Canadian government had invested at least $5.3 million developing the vaccine, according to PBS Frontline.
We were eventually successful, I guess. It just took too long.- Steven Jones
But Jones and his team were still looking for a pharmaceutical company to take over its manufacturing. Similar financial considerations led to roadblocks when seeking funds from pharmaceutical companies, who he described as "responsible to their shareholders, unfortunately, not to patients or the government."
Only Newlink, a small Iowa-based firm, expressed enough interest to license the VSV-ZEBOV vaccine.
In 2014, Newlink licensed it to pharmaceutical giant Merck, which signed an agreement with the Gavi Vaccine Alliance in 2016 to produce 300,000 doses for a future outbreak.
Those doses are being used to combat the Ebola outbreak in Congo today.
"We were eventually successful, I guess. It just took too long," said Jones.
Written by Jonathan Ore with files from Reuters. Produced by Jessica Linzey.
- An earlier version of this story listed Steven Jones as associate provost of health for the University of Saskatchewan School of Public Health. In fact, he is associate provost of health at the University of Saskatchewan Health Sciences.Aug 21, 2019 12:11 PM ET