UTMB researcher working on vaccine to help protect people against deadly Ebola virus

Researcher's focus is still on containing, eliminating Ebola within lab

HOUSTON – The Ebola virus is a killer: In just two years, 11,000 people in West Africa died after catching the disease.

The massive death toll sparked desperation in the World Health Organization, which has searched far and wide to find a vaccine.

It's been four years since Ebola sparked panic in Texas when Eric Duncan flew from Liberia to Dallas. Days later, Duncan landed in a hospital where the disease infected two health care workers, and he died -- the first Ebola death in the U.S.

"I think it's just a statistical probability that somebody gets on an airplane and winds up in Dallas," UTMB researcher Thomas Geisbert said.

Geisbert was working on a vaccine to protect people from the virus long before it crossed our border. Now that the disease has nearly disappeared from headlines, his focus is still on containing and eliminating Ebola within a lab. The virus is kept under high security.

Because it's so dangerous, KPRC was only allowed inside a practice lab.

The World Health Organization wants his creation and has already given about 7,500 shots of Geisbert's vaccine. The strategy is to administer the drug to first responders before they are exposed to the virus.

"You can imagine how hard it is to control an outbreak when your first line of defense is knocked out and can't help people," Geisbert said.

So far, the WHO is working quickly to contain the virus in parts of the world where Ebola is active.

"This thing works somewhere between three and seven days, and it only takes one shot," Geisbert said.

Grisbert said the proof the vaccines is protecting people comes from what they call a ring vaccine. For example, when one person has Ebola, you vaccinate everyone they've come in contact with, and then the people they've come in contact with and so on. This contains the virus and saves lives.

In addition to protecting lives, the reason we want this vaccine to be successful is because of the risk Ebola is as a biological weapon.

"After 9/11, the federal government realized that there was a particular need for developing interventions, vaccines, treatments, against exotic pathogens like Ebola virus because they could potentially be used by terrorists," Geisbert said.

Big pharmaceutical companies are ready to pounce. Geisbert said Merck will produce the drug he helped create. It is waiting on more data to confirm his vaccine is the reason current outbreaks are contained.

But since the virus is so dangerous, Merck and other organizations are not waiting around for confirmation to give the shots.

"With something like Ebola, we have a huge number of people died. Ethically, how do you not offer somebody the vaccine or the treatment?" health reporter Haley Hernandez asked.

"I don't think a lot of us that do this do it for financial gain, certainly or anything like that," Geisbert said. "To me, if something that we were involved in developing this vaccine, for example, if that vaccine protects one person's life, it was worth it."

Of the 4,500 people in Africa who received the vaccine, not one person got sick with Ebola.