Over the coming weeks, a total of 60 people in the UK will be given the vaccine, which has been fast-tracked for testing in light of the epidemic in West Africa.
At this stage, scientists at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University are looking for any unforeseen side-effects in healthy volunteers and trying to work out what the best dose of the vaccine might be to stimulate an appropriate immune response.
Later this year the trial will be extended to clinics here and in Mali and, if the results are positive, thousands of doses of the vaccine could be put into production by the end of the year.
Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute and the scientist leading the trials, said that, though it would have been difficult to predict that the current epidemic would turn out to be so severe, health authorities should have been testing and stockpiling Ebola vaccines well before now.
“In my view what is wrong here is that we didn’t have a vaccine waiting as a stockpile, available to be used whenever an outbreak happened,” he told news agencies.
“We haven’t done that for any African disease like Marburg, Ebola, Rift Valley Fever. We can make these vaccines, I think, we can make stockpiles and we can have them waiting for the outbreak, and then if you intervene very early, very few people should be affected.”
“We’ve never done that and this is a wake-up call to do something about that.”
Initially, any successful Ebola vaccines would be used to innoculate healthcare workers dealing with the epidemic, which has now spread to nine countries and infected almost 5,000 people so far, more than half of whom have died.
The first volunteer in Prof Hill’s trial, who was given the experimental vaccine this morning, is a former nurse from Marcham in Oxfordshire, Ruth Atkins.
An hour after being injected, she said she felt “absolutely fine, it felt no different to being vaccinated before going on holiday”.
The Oxford trial is being run in parallel with a similar trial in the United States under the supervision of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
So far in that trial, 10 people have been given the vaccine and none have reported any side-effects.
The vaccine has been developed by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the NIH.
It consists of a protein from the surface of the Ebola virus that has been stitched to the back of a virus that causes respiratory infections in chimpanzees.
It cannot cause any infection itself but scientists hope that the Ebola protein will encourage the recipient’s immune system to produce antibodies that will work against the Ebola virus itself.
The vaccine has already been tested in animals and shown promise, with just a single dose protecting against infection.
GSK has said it will make 10,000 doses of the vaccine if all goes well, a process that is likely to take several months after the data from the clinical trials is available.
Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the man who discovered the Ebola virus in what was then Zaire in 1976, welcomed the trials.
“I’m pleased that we finally test the experimental vaccine and therapies are working because this should be the last epidemic where we only have isolation and quarantine so that’s the good news now it will be tested.”
But Piot also told ITV News that international authorities have underestimated the potential of the Ebola epidemic and that the initial response had been too slow.
“I think all of us didn’t do enough including national governments but it was clear in June or July that this was an outbreak out of control but I’m happy now there is finally some serious action but it’s still not enough.
“We need a mind shift from containing epidemic to a humanitarian emergency and pull all the stops out and support people on the ground.”