The pitch was intriguing: U.S. health officials wanted to fast-track trials for an Ebola vaccine and sounded the call for volunteers.
Charles Sullivan called up the hotline on a whim, figuring the National Institutes of Health already had filled its queue and wouldn’t need him. But he was accepted for three rounds of shots of a deactivated virus, a year’s worth of blood analysis and a $900 check for his trouble. The clinical trial went well, and the vaccine seemed promising.
A decade later, the country is still waiting for a vaccine amid a worldwide Ebola outbreak, and Mr. Sullivan is wondering what happened to the research conducted on him and 27 other test subjects in 2003.
“It seems like they’re fast-tracking the same thing they were fast-tracking a decade ago,” said Mr. Sullivan, a 51-year-old resident of Rockville, Maryland.
The latest outbreak has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa, infected Americans on U.S. soil for the first time, and left political leaders and health officials clamoring for a vaccine.
Treatment options for those who are infected are also limited. An experimental drug, ZMapp, was given to Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, American aid workers who contracted Ebola in West Africa. Yet supplies of the drug, derived from tobacco plants, have been exhausted and must be rebuilt.
Federal health officials have blamed poor funding for the lack of a vaccine. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told The Huffington Post that the country probably would have had a vaccine if not for budget cuts, and the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases backed up that claim in a statement to The Washington Times.
“The loss of NIH purchasing power over the last 10 years, especially with sequestration, has slowed down biomedical research in virtually all areas. NIH-funded Ebola research would be further along if that had not happened,” the institute said. “NIH researchers found it difficult (until recently, with [GlaxoSmithKline]) to identify an industrial partner, which is critical for scale-up of vaccine production. Because of the extremely limited market potential prior to the 2014 outbreak, there was little industrial interest in an Ebola vaccine.”
Government records show that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases ran Ebola vaccine trials in 2003, 2006 and 2008, but none during President Obama’s two terms — until now.
Mr. Sullivan thought the 2003 trial in which he took part was a success, and he thinks the government, particularly the current administration, missed an opportunity to develop an Ebola vaccine as the war on terrorism waned.
“We fast-tracked then for al Qaeda. Now we’re fast-tracking it because of Thomas Eric Duncan,” Mr. Sullivan said, referring to the Liberian national who carried the disease to the U.S. and died in a Texas hospital Oct. 8. “It’s sad that as a nation we can’t keep our eye on the ball long enough to follow through.”
He said he had to sign legal waivers before joining the study group, which according to NIH documents was two-thirds male and 96 percent white. The researchers, whom he described as dedicated to their task and responsive, told him he would get either the vaccine or a placebo, used as a control.
The shot looked like a large carbon dioxide cartridge but did not hurt at all, he said, and the one side effect he experienced was a drip from the puncture point that looked like pink paint.
By 2006, the NIH revealed that he had been given the vaccine, not the control placebo. A scientific report on the study read: “This Ebola virus DNA vaccine was safe and immunogenic in humans.”
Years later, Mr. Sullivan feels like he is watching reruns.
“It’s the same cast of characters involved,” he said, “and it doesn’t seem like they’ve been moving the ball forward.”
In 2003, officials at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases seemed enthusiastic about their prospects, cheering the first human trial of a vaccine to prevent Ebola infection as a crucial part of anti-bioterrorism efforts in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“This trial is further evidence of the ability of the [Vaccine Research Center] to rapidly translate basic research into tangible products,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at the time.
Dr. Fauci is one of the most visible figures in the response to the current outbreak. He told Congress this year that commercial drug manufacturers had no incentive until now to develop a vaccine because Ebola had caused sporadic outbreaks affecting relatively few people.
Eleven years after Mr. Sullivan’s tests, there is no finished product to stem the Ebola epidemic. Instead, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced in August that it would conduct the first phase of trials on two experimental vaccines — one developed by the agency and GlaxoSmithKline, and the other developed in Canada and licensed to NewLink Genetics Corp.
Dr. Fauci said the trials are “the first step in a long process” toward a pharmaceutical shield against the virus, and that this round builds upon experience dating to 2003.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, speaking on MSNBC last week, predicted that a vaccine could be safe, efficient and ready for production by 2015.
“It couldn’t be done in the final stages before that because every time it appears, the virus is a bit different,” he said. “It has to be done at the time that the virus appears.”