Originally published on Saturday, 18 July 2015 in The Age.
Hundreds of Australians have been injected with an Ebola vaccine that has proved effective in apes, or with a placebo.
Michelle Gallaher hopes to never come into contact with Ebola, but if she does she is hoping she will already be immune to the virus.
She is one of 230 people who have volunteered to take part in an Ebola vaccine trial under way in Australia.
More than 10,000 people have died of Ebola in West Africa following the worst outbreak in decades, and several vaccines are being tested throughout the world.
“I’m really glad to help, particularly with Ebola,” Ms Gallaher said. “This could literally save millions of lives.
“People in developed countries like Australia should be helping this global effort, and I have blood and antibodies to contribute. It is something a lot of people don’t consider when they want to help but don’t know how.”
The clinical trial, which is being carried out in Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland, is to test that the vaccine does not have any side effects, and those who signed up are not being injected with any form of Ebola.
Earlier tests of the vaccine in apes found none of the injected animals died when exposed to a lethal dose of the virus, compared with all of the unvaccinated animals.
Ms Gallaher received two injections over three weeks in March and will be keeping a daily diary monitoring her health until the trial concludes early next year.Trial participants were paid about $1000 for their involvement, she said.
Because the trial has two groups – one receiving the vaccine and the other a placebo – she does not know what was injected into her.
But Ms Gallaher said she had not been concerned about the possibility of side effects when she volunteered.
In Victoria the trial is being carried out at Melbourne-based research organisation Nucleus Network, which conducts about 50 clinical trials a year and employs 75 full-time staff.
The Ebola vaccine trial involves volunteers spending the day of their injections at the facility, although some trials require participants to remain under observation for days or even weeks.
Nucleus Network chief operating officer Cameron Johnson said a number of drugs and vaccines have been trialled at the centre, including Ross River and dengue fever vaccines. A very rigorous path had to be followed before any drugs moved into human clinical trials.
“Every prescribed medication that is currently on the market had to go through the clinical trial pathway,” Mr Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for people who volunteered to be in these trials then there wouldn’t be any new drugs on the market.”
The number of clinical trials commencing in Australia dropped 7 per cent between 2012 and 2013, while a 2010 Pharmaceuticals Industry Council report found more than half of phase 3 trials (which need more participants than earlier phases) did make it beyond the recruitment stage.In May, the Abbott government launched a website that aims to help people access clinical trials.
A National Health and Medical Research Council spokesperson said a total of 1334 new trials were registered in Australia, with mental health, cancer and heart disease treatments being the most predominant.
Ms Gallaher, who has a background in the biotechnology industry, said she had always advocated for clinical trials but that this was the first time she had participated in one.
“We are the unsung heroes of medical research,” she said.