Hundreds of Nova Scotians are volunteering to be injected with an experimental vaccine that might cause aches and fever – but could protect against the Ebola virus.
Within minutes of the Nov. 14 announcement that Halifax's IWK Health Centre was chosen to hold the clinical trial to test Canada's Ebola vaccine, the phones started ringing and e-mails began arriving from people who wanted to participate. A week later, the trial team has heard from about 300 people – it only needs 40 healthy individuals, between 18 and 65, for this first-phase trial.
For Scott Halperin, the doctor running the trial, the response has been overwhelming, and unprecedented.
"It's got to be altruism," he told The Globe and Mail.
They are now well through the screening process to identify the study group, and hope to start vaccinating by Monday or Tuesday. The $300,000 trial is to be complete in six-and-a-half months. The second-phase trials of the vaccine, which is called BPSC1001 and contains a virus usually found in animals, is expected to take place in western Africa in January.
The vaccine does not contain the Ebola virus, but is designed to produce an Ebola virus protein and potential immunity.
In the typical process to find subjects for clinical trials, "we have to sort of rattle the cages and shake things out," Dr. Halperin said. The hospital usually reaches out through social media, radio and newspaper ads or goes to its database of about 1,000 people who have participated in previous studies.
"So, there was something very different about people's motivation to participate," he said.
He believes it is not out of self-interest. For example, he remembers that years ago when meningitis was a scare, it was easy to find volunteers to test vaccines. "They wanted to get involved because there was a good chance the vaccine would work and they wanted to get protected … [get] access to the vaccines more quickly," he said.
That is obviously not the issue here, he notes, because Ebola is not in Canada and he doesn't believe that many of the participants are on their way to visit the West African countries where Ebola is found. He doesn't think it's about the money either – each participant will receive a stipend of $1,100 for 11 visits, during which blood will be drawn. Urine and saliva analysis will be done at some visits. It's a time commitment of between 12 and 14 hours over six months.
"Our ethics board is really careful … to look at reimbursement and compensation to say it cannot be coercive," he said. "It can't be so much that somebody would participate in the study without thinking about the risks and benefits." He says people are telling his team that "they just want to do something to help with the Ebola crisis."
Lindsay Smith is a 29-year-old Dalhousie University student studying health sciences, who was screened Friday for the study. "What a better chance to get involved," she said. "Ebola is scary. Ebola is a wild virus unlike anything we ever see in North America and this outbreak itself is so unprecedented."
She has focused in her studies on the spread of the virus and says she wants to help minimize the risk of it spreading elsewhere. As for the money, Ms. Smith says she only heard about it after she volunteered but admits it's a "perk" that will help with her student loans.
"But I would have done it without the money," she said, adding she'll be disappointed if she doesn't make the cut.
Dr. Halperin and his team are dividing the 40 volunteers into four groups: one group of 10 people will receive a low dose; the other will be injected with a medium-strength dose, and the third will receive a higher dose. The remaining group will be injected with a placebo – saltwater.
It is called an "observed blinded study." The only ones in the know are the statistician who generates the random computer code which determines who gets what dose, the nurse who injects the participants and the pharmacist who mixes the doses.
"I will be blinded clear through until the end, as will the participants," Dr. Halperin said.