Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, was born 100 years ago this week, and the contributions he made to science still save countless lives. That's because the scientific dogma behind his vaccine still holds true: If you expose a body to deactivated, noncontagious version of a virus, when a live bug comes along, that body will be ready.
The same principle would apply to an Ebola vaccine. That is, if one was available for the human body. Ebola vaccines exist, but until now, they have only been tested in monkeys.
"We need to speed up that time point," says Clive Gray, a professor of immunology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. By December, the efforts may be too little, too late. And results from the first phase of trials don't mean wide-scale production. They mean more clinical trials. The time clock is grim and running thin: The most pessimistic scenarios predict as many as 1.4 million cases of the disease by January.
It's not the science that has held an Ebola vaccine back. In 2005, researchers reported a vaccine that was 100 percent effective in protecting monkeys from the illness. That should have promoted a human trial. But it didn't.
"The current Ebola outbreak is the same viral strain — the Zaire Ebola virus strain — as the very first outbreak."
Why? Simply and sadly, it was bad business for drug manufacturers. Past outbreaks have been small and confined to poor countries with faltering public-health systems. Now, with international attention focused on Ebola, an Ebola vaccine will become a reality. WHO reports that clinical trials are underway in three countries and will soon commence in four others.