January 28, 2015 Ripley Ballou, the chief Ebola vaccine researcher at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), was late for our phone conference. I asked what held him up. “Silly little things like Liberia saying, ‘We saw on the news you were sending vaccine. Can you send us the billing shipments and let us know what’s on that plane?’ ” he said, lightheartedly. “You think that would have been taken care of.”
He was able to track down paperwork. It was one last little “t” to cross in an unprecedented effort to bring an experimental vaccine to a large-scale clinical trial in just four months. That’s a lightning pace for the pharmaceutical industry, which normally works on a decade timescale. “I’ve been doing this kind of work between 25 and 30 years,” Ballou says. “I certainly never experienced something like this.” GSK put about 175 people on the project in August after the World Health Organization declared Ebola an international public health emergency. Other projects were shelved. “We’ve had to disrupt the entire system at every level to try to make things go as quickly as possible and yet not sacrifice on quality or patient safety,” he says.