Many people contributed to the development of Merck’s Ebola vaccine, the first licensed one for the disease based on data showing it works in humans.
From the earliest work to turn a livestock virus into a delivery system for vaccines to a Herculean effort to test it during the waning days of the West African Ebola outbreak, scores of people were in a position to claim “I helped develop that vaccine” when European and American regulators approved Ervebo, as Merck has named it, in late 2019.
STAT can’t list them all. But here are some of the people who made key contributions to the development of a vaccine that seemed for years like it would never be made. The list is chronological in terms of when the contributions occurred.
John “Jack” Rose developed an efficient vaccine backbone at his laboratory at Yale University in the 1990s using a livestock virus called vesicular stomatitis virus. The beauty of the VSV backbone is the virus triggers a rapid and strong immune response.
Heinz Feldmann led the research to fuse a key protein from the Ebola Zaire virus onto the VSV backbone at Philipps-University Marburg in Germany. Later, he led the work to test it in animals at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. Feldmann left the Canadian lab in 2008. He is now head of virology at the National Institute of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.
Steven Jones worked under Feldmann, doing a lot of the actual lab work. He, Feldmann, and Ute Ströher, a scientist who now works at the World Health Organization, are listed on the vaccine’s patent. Jones was instrumental in helping secure a pivotal grant that allowed the lab to make batches of human-grade vaccine so it could be tested in people.
Tom Geisbert, while at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, tested the VSV vaccine in nonhuman primates, showing they were protected by it. Geisbert conducted the work with U.S. Department of Defense funding.
Gary Kobinger took over the special pathogens team at the Canadian lab after Feldmann left. He and lab director Frank Plummer pushed to get human-grade vaccine made with the aim of doing a human trial to try to move the project forward.
Judie Alimonti was the project manager at the Canadian lab for the production of human-grade vaccine to test. Without her meticulous and dogged efforts, the trial lots might not have been available and ready to test in the West African outbreak. Alimonti died in 2017.
Marie-Paule Kieny led efforts at the World Health Organization to try to find experimental Ebola vaccines and drugs to test and use in the West African outbreak, work that contributed to the enlisting of Merck to develop the vaccine. The WHO team sponsored the Guinea clinical trial, led by Ana Maria Henao-Restrepo, which showed the vaccine was protective in people.
Mark Feinberg, Merck’s former chief science officer, was instrumental in getting the company to agree to develop the vaccine. Beth-Ann Coller is Merck’s project lead for Ervebo, corralling data from 12 clinical trials conducted by independent scientists over three different continents and shepherding the vaccine through the approvals process.