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British woman tests Ebola vaccine

A healthy Briton has today become the first volunteer to receive a potentially life-saving new vaccine to tackle the Ebola virus spreading through West Africa.

Ruth Atkins, a communications manager in the NHS from Marcham in Oxfordshire, was injected with the experimental drug this morning as part of a safety trial carried out by experts at the University of Oxford.

She is one of 60 volunteers who are taking part in the UK trial over the coming weeks which has been fast tracked because of the worsening outbreak.

Two more volunteers will be given the jab on Friday.

Ms Atkins, who has also worked as a nurse in the NHS, said: "I feel absolutely fine, it felt no different to being vaccinated before going on holiday."

She added: "It's that one step and I'm part of that first step."

Ms Atkins, 48, who was only accepted for the trial on Monday after completing screening tests last week, will keep a diary of her side effects over the next eight weeks and undergo regular blood tests.

The trial is being led by Professor Adrian Hill of the Jenner Institute at the university, who hailed it as a "very important step" in bringing the disease, which has so far killed more than 2,250 people, under control.

"If everything works well over the coming months we will hopefully be using this for healthcare workers by the end of the year," he said.

"This vaccine has never been given to a person before so it's a very important step in fighting the outbreak of Ebola."

"This is the best candidate for an Ebola vaccine we have anywhere in the world."

Ms Atkins said she first heard about the trial while listening to the radio.

"I volunteered because the situation in West Africa is so tragic and I thought being part of this vaccination process was something small I could do to hopefully make a huge impact.

"I did not realise until today how many people behind the scenes have worked extra and unsociable hours to get this to trial so quickly.

"The team has been so helpful and supportive, coming in for early morning appointments to allow me to take part before I go to work."

She admitted her friends and family had raised concerns that she was being injected with the virus itself.

"My 15-year-old son thought it was Ebola I'm having and he asked am I going to die and where is my will and how much do I get? My 12-year-old daughter was concerned but also said well done mum for what you're doing."

Prof Hill stressed that volunteers are under no additional risk because the trial has been rushed through.

"We are not doing the trial itself any faster. It's the arrangements, the approval for the trial from manufacturers, regulatory bodies and the ethical council that has happened in record time when under any other circumstances it would have taken years," he said.

"They have put this at the top of their pile.

"There has been a lot of help from the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health. Some very senior people have said we really have to do this now otherwise people will continue to die."

He added that he was "enormously grateful" to the 60 volunteers.

The trials are conducted on healthy people to see whether they suffer any side effects and if the jab generates a good immune response.

The university said the vaccine does not contain infectious Ebola virus material and will not cause a person taking part in the trial to be infected.

Ten thousand doses of the drug are already being manufactured by British drug company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) alongside the clinical trial in the hope that it will be approved for use in the coming months.

The vaccine, co-developed by the US National Institutes of Health and GSK, targets the "Zaire species" of Ebola which is one of the strains circulating in West Africa. It uses a single benign Ebola virus protein to generate an immune response.

The testing is part of a series of safety trials of potential vaccines to combat the virus, which could offer hope to the thousands facing the illness that has killed about 53% of those infected.

The vaccine has shown promising results when tested on animals. Pre-clinical research indicated that it provided protection for non-human primates exposed to Ebola without any significant adverse side effects.

A £2.8 million grant was awarded to the Jenner Institute at the university from the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Department for International Development to accelerate the trials.

If it is successful, the drug will be tested in Gambia and Mali to ensure the studies take into account differences between European and West African populations.

Nearly 5,000 have been infected in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal since the outbreak began earlier this year.

International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: " Britain is a world leader in medical research and our co-funding of clinical trials is ensuring this research begins quickly so it might help as many people as possible."

The Government has so far given £25.5 million to agencies providing critical care in West Africa.

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