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Vaccines are a flashpoint in American society. But who actually develops them? For decades, Dr. Hildegund Ertl has been a leader in vaccine research, working on HIV, HPV, rabies, influenza, and other deadly viruses.

An immunologist in a field filled with virologists, Ertl told STAT that her insights come from her background, her collaborations with other scientists, and the carefully guarded time she spends totally alone.


What do you think about American attitudes toward vaccines?

I think the average American gets their kids vaccinated, they get themselves vaccinated.

Do you have confidence in the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer?

As far as I can tell, the vaccine is efficacious and safe. The only problem is it’s very expensive.

In recent HIV vaccine trials, those who got immunized were actually more likely to get the disease. Is HIV simply too tricky or complicated to yield to a vaccine?

All clinical trials with one exception have been a flop. That one showed 30 percent efficacy for a year, but after five doses, which is just not a viable approach. It is feasible to reduce acquisition [of the virus]. We just have to come up with a better vaccine.


And for Ebola?

With Ebola, I think we’ll never get there. The last outbreak being a total exception, every year we have, on average, an outbreak of 10-20 [cases]. To show efficacy, you need a large outbreak, and I don’t know if we’ll have another one in the next 30 years.

After what happened last weekend in France, where a patient died from a first-in-human, Phase 1 trial of a drug, are you ever worried that testing the vaccines you develop will hurt people?

No. I am about as conservative as they come. If you do a Phase 1 trial and dose-escalate slowly, it’s very, very safe.

How do you spend your free time?

I like going to places where no other people go: Amazonia, Mongolia.

It doesn’t bother you to be alone?

All day long I deal with students, collaborators, people like you. By the time weekend comes, I want to take a deep breath and not deal with anyone.

But you have pets to talk to?

I have two great danes, three cats, and a parrot named Matilda. My parrot is the only one who will talk back, and most of it is not very friendly.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the challenges of being a woman in science. Do you think your gender has held you back?

When I started out many, many years ago, chauvinism was raging wild in Germany. I would never have gotten ahead. In America, the fact that I’m a woman wasn’t a big handicap. I am fully grateful for that.

You’re about to turn 63. Are you eyeing retirement in a few years or will you keep doing science forever? 

One thing I want to do before I’m too old is to volunteer for Doctors Without Borders. That is physically challenging enough that I can’t do it when I’m in my 90s, and it also takes enough time that I can’t be doing it while I’m working full-time. I stopped practicing medicine very early on and I still miss it.

Dr. Hildegund Ertl is the founding director of the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center in Philadelphia. This interview has been edited and condensed.