Shot at beating virus — Alberta scientist at heart of team fighting Ebola

If it works, it really will be the shot heard around the world.

And right there celebrating will be the University of Calgary trained scientist who helped develop VSV-EBOV, the Ebola vaccine on which the hopes of a very worried planet currently rest.

“I’m very proud of him — they’re doing amazing work over there, and we’re very proud this is coming from Canada,” said Julie Strong.

Julie’s husband is Dr. Jim Strong, the Alberta-born, Calgary-trained pathogen researcher who is part of the crack Canadian science team bringing VSV-EBOV to Africa to battle the current outbreak of the killer virus, which threatens to spread globally.

Created at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, the experimental vaccine donated by Canada to the World Health Organization will be shipped to Geneva next week — and from there VSV-EBOV will go on to hurried human trials, with hopes the 1,000 vials of serum could protect up to 100,000 lives.

Strong is back in Africa this Thanksgiving weekend, having already spent much of the summer in Guinea and Sierra Leone as part of an international effort to contain the outbreak, which has now killed more than 4,000 people in seven countries, including one death in the United States.

Led by Dr. Gary Kobinger, chief of special pathogens at the Manitoba laboratory, Strong and other experts have been instrumental in developing the vaccine, which in a series of extremely successful tests on primates has even shown signs of being able to protect those already infected.

Strong, reached by mobile phone, said time was of the essence.

“It’s extremely busy at the moment,” he said.

Back home in Winnipeg, Julie Strong says the family has great faith in both Jim and the team he’s on.

“He’s a very competent and great guy, and he’s doing fabulous work — they all are, and that lab is doing fabulous work,” she said.

Though touted as the most promising vaccine trial thus far, Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory isn’t the only science facility doing feverish research on potential drugs to combat Ebola, which has shown mortality rates as high as 90% in past outbreaks.

Growing concern over the spread of the virus has led researchers in the U.S., Russia and elsewhere to fast-track human testing that might normally take years.

The current form of the disease stems back to 2012 in Uganda, and has now infected countries across West Africa, where medical facilities and equipment are scarce and rudimentary at best.

Extremely deadly and highly infectious — meaning even slight exposure can cause sickness — Ebola is nonetheless considered only moderately contagious, because it isn’t airborne and requires direct contact with bodily fluids or objects contaminated by victims.

According the University of Calgary infectious disease expert Dr. Glen Armstrong, that knowledge is what keeps scientists like Strong from panicking, despite working in the midst of a killer outbreak that has the rest of the world scared.

“Although it’s a very deadly disease, there are some straight-forward procedures you can use to protect yourself,” said Armstrong.

“Really, if you use standard infection control measures, as you would use in any operating room and so on, it’s not a particularly terrifying disease to work with.”

Armstrong says the only real danger to properly equipped medical professionals in a high stress zone is fatigue, when basic mistakes can be made.

“It’s remembering to remove your gloves before putting a hand near your face, and that’s a very simple mistake. But mistakes can be deadly,” said Armstrong.

On Sunday, health care officials announced a Dallas health care worker who treated the only other U.S. victim so far had tested positive for Ebola despite having protective equipment. An investigation is now underway to determine what “clear breach of safety protocol” caused the infection.

Armstrong, meanwhile, says he’s not at all surprised that a University of Calgary schooled scientist would be helping to halt Ebola.

“Not at all — the U of C has a long history, ever since the Department of Microbiology, Immunology Infectious Diseases was established back in the 1970s, of vaccine research,” he said.

“There’s a history there.”

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