This Philly Virus Expert Is Close to Finishing Ebola Vaccine

Needs $2 million to have it ready for clinical trials in six to nine months.

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Matthias J. Schnell is the director of the Jefferson Vaccine Center at Thomas Jefferson University, and he’s been working for nearly three years to complete a vaccine for Ebola, which has claimed between 1,000 and 2,000 lives in its latest outbreak — and has caused a panic in the United States in ways that it never has before. We reached him on vacation in Europe to find out how close we are to re-enacting scenes from the movies Outbreak and Contagion.

OK, first thing first. Please tell me that you don’t have Ebola down at the campus at 10th and Locust.
No, we don’t have the Ebola virus. We work with an integrated research facility at the NIH, and they have it there, at Fort Detrick in Maryland. We only have one protein of the virus here.

Still, should we be nervous about this latest outbreak of Ebola?
Here in the U.S., I don’t think you have to be concerned on any level. In Africa, I would be scared. Even if someone came here with Ebola, it would probably be handled OK. It’s a deadly virus, and we certainly don’t want to have it here, but the risk is next to nil, currently.

But what if I have contact with that person with Ebola at the airport?
With Ebola, the symptoms of an infected person are very clear. They’re not going to be walking around for a long time. They’ll have extreme vomiting and diarrhea. It’s not like you’re going to a shopping mall [if you have it].

Do we know for sure where Ebola came from at this point?
It’s very likely that it came from bats, but it’s not 100 percent. But I would bet on bats. Humans can get it from monkeys, but monkeys aren’t the natural host, because they die when they get it. In some African countries, monkeys are bush meat. They kill and eat monkeys. And if you get an infected one, the Ebola could come to you. In an outbreak, monkeys aren’t any better off than we are. We lose thousands of monkeys when there’s an infection.

This outbreak, it has been very clear that the virus came from one single person, a 2-year-old boy, but it’s really unclear how he got it. These societies are very social. Somebody gets sick and a neighbor takes care of them. People travel to funerals, which is probably how it spread to Nigeria.

The health infrastructure there is not well developed, and so it’s hard to contain it. In the past, the WHO was pretty good at containment, but this outbreak seems to have gone wrong at some point.

If someone — like the patient in Atlanta — comes to the U.S. for the disease for treatment and recovers, is there any risk of them spreading it still?
No. It’s very clear that if you are survive, you are done. You can let them go. You don’t have to lock them up. Some people live, and some people die. It’s about the immune system, but it’s also about luck.

Tell me about your vaccine.
We wanted to make a vaccine against Ebola. But the problem was, Ebola outbreaks are very rare. Now it gets a lot of attention, but basically they happen every other year and kill 500 people, this time maybe 2,000. So, it’s infrequent, and there aren’t many deaths. It’s not a good market for a vaccine.

Who would you vaccinate? People wouldn’t want to be vaccinated unless there was a clear risk. Otherwise, they feel like guinea pigs.

But rabies is a general problem in Africa. There are many people dying of rabies infection. The estimates are 10,000, but it’s probably way higher. So we said, let’s make one vaccine for both, and then you have the justification to administer it, because it vaccinates against rabies.

So we took a rabies vaccine and added this Ebola vaccine that we’ve developed to it.

And what is the status?
We have an NIH grant to develop it, and we already have it in pre-clinical development. In three years, it should be ready for testing in humans. We tested it on monkeys, and it worked. With the right financial support, though, say $2 million, we could have it ready for clinical testing in six to nine months.

But who on earth would let you expose them to Ebola?
They wouldn’t have to. Phase one would test for toxicity of the vaccine. Phase two would be a small group of people, say 500. You wouldn’t expose them to Ebola. You would give them the vaccine and just test to see if they develop antibodies, and you test the antibodies in the petri dish. Do they have the antibody against Ebola?

And then phase three, you would vaccinate in Africa and just wait and see what happens long-term. That’s really the only way to do it. But three doses on day one and then seven days later and then on day 21 should provide lifelong immunity.

Should we be restricting air travel from infected regions of Africa to the U.S.?

No, there is no reason to do so.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.