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How a Canadian Prairie city made an Ebola vaccine

By Rod Nickel and Allison Martell

WINNIPEG/TORONTO (Reuters) - An experimental Ebola vaccine that is offering some hope for West Africa was invented in a small Canadian Prairie city and had its roots in the Cold War, the German town of Marburg and a disease scare that panicked Toronto in the 1970s.

The Canadian government said this week that the Ebola vaccine, developed at its National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, though untested on humans, would be offered to the World Health Organization for use in Africa.

The WHO ruled on Tuesday that it would be ethical, given the extraordinary circumstances of the Ebola outbreak, to give untested treatments to infected patients. Canada is one of only two countries in the world, along with the United States, to have developed an Ebola vaccine.

The Winnipeg lab where the vaccine, called VSV-EBOV, was developed also produced some of the components of the ZMapp treatment given to two American aid workers who were stricken with Ebola.

"Research into Ebola is not something that we've done well on globally. If it was going to be done, it wouldn't be done in the countries most affected by it because they don't have the research infrastructure," said Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Toronto's Mount Sinai hospital.

"Canada has a history in these things. Don't forget Connaught Laboratories," she said, referring to a Toronto lab whose scientists discovered insulin and later contributed to the development of a polio vaccine.

The development of the VSV-EBOV Ebola vaccine was fueled by a fortuitous collection of infectious disease experts who worked at the Winnipeg lab in the early 2000s, and by their decision to take up the ambitious challenge of trying to tame Ebola.

The facility in the Prairie city is one of only a handful of North American labs capable of handling level four, or BSL-4, pathogens and the only such lab in Canada.

The scientists decided to tackle Ebola even though it has historically killed fewer people than other diseases. The latest outbreak, the world's deadliest, has so far taken 1,069 lives mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

"Ebola is so infectious and so aggressive that we're using it also as a disease model, with the rationale that if we can find a good vaccine against Ebola, if we can find a good treatment, (they) will likely work for us against other agents," Gary Kobinger, chief of special pathogens at the Winnipeg facility, told Reuters.

"The beginning of the rationale was, 'Let's try to tackle that one, just because it's the toughest one'."

SHADOW OF MARBURG

The Ebola research was led by Heinz Feldmann who was recruited to work at the Winnipeg lab when it opened in 1999.

He came from the University of Marburg in Germany. A virus similar to Ebola caused a 1967 outbreak in the university town, and was named the Marburg virus. Feldmann's interest in hemorrhagic fever was a key factor behind the Winnipeg push for an experimental vaccine.

"We both grew up next door to BSL-4 labs," said Thomas Geisbert, a former virologist at U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, who worked on the experimental vaccine with Feldmann.

"We had this idea, certainly more his idea than mine, (about how a vaccine could work)."

In 2005, the Winnipeg team announced it had developed an Ebola vaccine that was highly effective in monkeys. Along with collaborators in the United States, Germany and France, it published the results in the journal Nature Medicine.

The lab never tested its vaccine on humans because Ebola had affected a relatively small number of people globally, Kobinger said. More lethal viruses and diseases competed for funding.

Feldmann, who left Winnipeg in 2008 to join a U.S. National Institutes of Health lab in Montana, was en route to Africa and declined to comment for this story.

Before the Winnipeg lab opened, Canada did not have a single level four lab. Samples from patients who showed symptoms of certain rare diseases were sent to the United States for diagnosis.

A suspected Lassa fever case in Toronto in 1976, however, sparked panic in the city. A hospital was shut down for days and staff put in isolation until results of tests came back negative from the United States, where hemorrhagic fever had been studied for years. By the early 1980s, Canada was planning its own lab.

Geisbert said reports that the Soviet Union had developed Marburg and Ebola viruses as weapons during the Cold War spurred the U.S. military's search for a vaccine, and government funding for Ebola research also jumped after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"We had great support from governments to do that work, to develop these products, to show that they work in nonhuman primates," said Geisbert, now a professor at the University of Texas in Galveston.

"I can tell you that I think of the four or five vaccines that work in nonhuman primates, I would take this one, my whole lab would take this one in a heartbeat."

(Additional reporting by Euan Rocha in Toronto; David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Amran Abocar; and Peter Galloway)

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