How a Canadian Prairie city made an Ebola vaccine

Thu Aug 14, 2014 3:37pm EDT
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By Rod Nickel and Allison Martell

WINNIPEG/TORONTO (Reuters) - An experimental Ebola vaccine that is offering some hope for West Africa was invented in a small Canadian Prairie city and had its roots in the Cold War, the German town of Marburg and a disease scare that panicked Toronto in the 1970s.

The Canadian government said this week that the Ebola vaccine, developed at its National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, though untested on humans, would be offered to the World Health Organization for use in Africa.

The WHO ruled on Tuesday that it would be ethical, given the extraordinary circumstances of the Ebola outbreak, to give untested treatments to infected patients. Canada is one of only two countries in the world, along with the United States, to have developed an Ebola vaccine.

The Winnipeg lab where the vaccine, called VSV-EBOV, was developed also produced some of the components of the ZMapp treatment given to two American aid workers who were stricken with Ebola.

"Research into Ebola is not something that we've done well on globally. If it was going to be done, it wouldn't be done in the countries most affected by it because they don't have the research infrastructure," said Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Toronto's Mount Sinai hospital.

"Canada has a history in these things. Don't forget Connaught Laboratories," she said, referring to a Toronto lab whose scientists discovered insulin and later contributed to the development of a polio vaccine.

The development of the VSV-EBOV Ebola vaccine was fueled by a fortuitous collection of infectious disease experts who worked at the Winnipeg lab in the early 2000s, and by their decision to take up the ambitious challenge of trying to tame Ebola.

The facility in the Prairie city is one of only a handful of North American labs capable of handling level four, or BSL-4, pathogens and the only such lab in Canada.   Continued...