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Ebola Didn't Make This Doctor Sick — The Experimental Ebola Vaccine Did

Study Participant Receives NIAID/GSK Candidate Ebola Vaccine (Photo by NIAID)
Study Participant Receives NIAID/GSK Candidate Ebola Vaccine (Photo by NIAID)
By Maggie Fox
Just 12 hours after he got an experimental Ebola vaccine, and just two days after he stuck himself with a needle while caring for Ebola patients in September, Dr. Lewis Rubinson started getting sick.

By then, Rubinson was aboard a jet, being evacuated from Sierra Leone to the United States. He wasn't sure if he was infected with Ebola or if the vaccine was causing a reaction. He was en route to strict isolation at the National Institutes of Health outside Washington D.C.

Months later, it's fairly clear the vaccine caused the reaction. He has no trace of Ebola infection. What's not entirely clear is whether the vaccine stopped the virus from taking hold, or whether he was never infected in the first place.

"My gut leads me to believe he was never exposed. You can never prove it," Thomas Geisbert, an Ebola vaccine expert at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, told NBC News.


Rubinson had two choices: an experimental drug made by Canadian company Tekmira, or an experimental Ebola vaccine that had not, at that time, ever been tested in humans. Rubinson chose the vaccine.

He was put aboard a specially equipped jet for the long flight to Maryland and vaccinated.

"The patient developed malaise, nausea and fever 12 hours after the vaccination while on the transport jet," Dr. Mark Mulligan of Emory University and colleagues wrote in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Thursday.

They could have been symptoms of Ebola, or from the vaccine, which is made using a "live" virus called vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) genetically engineered to carry a small, non-infectious piece of Ebola virus. By design, the vaccine causes a mild infection that activates the immune system and helps it recognize Ebola.

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