The ability to produce the Ebolavirus vaccine, called rVSV-EBOV, originates in the 1970s with the discovery of the enzyme reverse transcriptase, the development of recombinant DNA technology, and the ability to rapidly and accurately determine the sequence of nucleic acids. These advances came together in 1981 when it was shown that cloned DNA copies of RNA viral genomes (a bacteriophage, a retrovirus, and poliovirus), carried in a bacterial plasmid, were infectious when introduced into mammalian cells. Production of an infectious DNA copy of the genome of vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) was reported in 1995. In their paper the authors noted:
Because VSV can be grown to very high titers and in large quantities with relative ease, it may be possible to genetically engineer recombinant VSVs displaying foreign antigens. Such modified viruses could be useful as vaccines conferring protection against other viruses.
This technology was subsequently used in 2004 to produce replication competent VSV carrying the genes encoding the glycoproteins of filoviruses, which others had shown are the targets of neutralizing antibodies. When injected into mice, these recombinant viruses induced neutralizing antibodies that were protective against lethal disease after challenge with Ebolavirus.
In a series of experiments done over the next 10 years, rVSV-EBOV was shown to protect nonhuman primates from lethal disease. In these experiments, animals were injected intramuscularly with the vaccine and challenged with Ebolavirus. The vaccine induced protection against lethal disease and prevented viremia. Extensive studies of the VSV vector in ~80 nonhuman primates showed no serious side effects, and only transient vector viremia.
The rVSV-EBOV was originally developed by Public Health Agency of Canada, and subsequently licensed to NewLink Genetics. Financial support has been provided from Canadian and US governments and others. From 2005 to the present, the NIH Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton, Montana has also been involved in this work, particularly with nohuman primate challenge studies. In November 2014 Merck entered an agreement with NewLink to manufacture and distribute the vaccine.
In August 2014, well into West Africa Ebolavirus outbreak, Canada donated 800 vials of vaccine to WHO, which then established the VSV Ebola Consortium (VEBCON) to conduct human trials.
The results of Phase I trials of rVSV-EBOV in Africa (Gabon, Kenya) and Europe (Hamburg, Geneva) were published on 1 April 2015. These trials comprised three open-label, dose-escalation trials, and one randomized, double blind controlled trial in 158 adults. Each volunteer was given one injection of 300,000 to 50 million plaque-forming units of rVSV-EBOV or placebo. No serious vaccine related events were reported, but immunization was accompanied by fever, joint pain, and some vesicular dermatitis. A transient systemic infection was observed, followed by development of Ebolavirus-specific antibody responses in all participants, and neutralizing antibodies in most.
The interim results of a phase III trial of rVSV-EBOV, begun on 23 March 2015 in Guinea, have just been published. It is a cluster-randomized trial with a novel design that is modeled on the ring vaccination approach used for smallpox eradication in the 1970s. In ring vaccination, individuals in the area of an outbreak are immunized, in contrast to treating a larger segment of the population. During this trial, when a case of Ebolavirus infection was identified, all contacts and contacts-of-contacts were identified. Some of these individuals were immediately immunized intramuscularly with 2 x 107 PFU, and others (randomly chosen) were immunized three weeks later. The primary outcome was Ebolavirus disease confirmed by PCR. As new cases arose in other areas (clusters), these were treated in the same way, hence the name of cluster-randomized trial.
The press has widely reported that the vaccine was ‘100% protective’. This outcome sounds much better than is represented by the data, so let’s look at the numbers.
Zero cases of Ebolavirus disease were observed in 2,014 immediately vaccinated people, while 16 cases were identified in those given delayed vaccine (n=2,380). These numbers were used to calculate the vaccine efficacy of 100%. While statistically significant, the numbers are small.
More telling are the results obtained when we consider all individuals eligible for immunization, not just those who were immunized (some were excluded for a variety of reasons). Of 4,123 eligible individuals, 2,014 were immunized as noted above, but 2,109 did not receive vaccine. Eight cases of Ebola virus disease were noted in the non-immunized population. This number is small, a consequence of the fact that the outbreak is waning.
On the basis of these interim results, the data and safety monitoring board decided that the trial should continue. However because the board felt that the vaccine is a success, they decided to curtail randomization of subjects into immediately vaccinated and delayed vaccinated groups. Now all contacts and contacts-of-contacts will immediately receive vaccine. As a consequence of this change, it will not be possible to improve the accuracy of vaccine efficacy. For example, when many more individuals are immunized in the future, many fewer that 100% might be protected from disease.
There are two lessons I would like you to remember from this brief history of an Ebolavirus vaccine. Developing a vaccine takes a long time (minimum 11 years for rVSV-EBOV) and depends on advances made with both basic and clinical research. Don’t believe anyone who says that this vaccine was made in a year. And always look at the numbers when you hear that a vaccine has 100% efficacy.