If an Ebola vaccine were as profitable as erection pills, we’d already have one

The ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa is easily the deadliest outbreak in the disease’s known* history, having infected a suspected 1323 people and having killed 729 of them. Since it began in Guinea in February, this outbreak has caused Liberia to close its borders, caused Nigeria to begin screening passengers on incoming flights, caused Sierra Leone to declare a national state of emergency, and caused the Peace Corps to pull its volunteers out of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The Centers for Disease Control issued its highest-level travel warning (level 3: “avoid nonessential travel”) for West Africa.

The good news, though unfortunately not for the people who are being infected right now, is that there’s movement on the path toward an Ebola vaccine. The NIH is supposed to begin a trial in September of something that has proven effective in non-human primate trials, and if it’s successful it could be distributed beginning in 2015, initially to health workers who are at the greatest risk of contracting the virus. There are a few other potential treatments/vaccines in the pipeline as well. But buried in that piece on the NIH trial is what really ought to be the final word on the for-profit healthcare industry:

The only positive development to come from the epidemic is that it’s attracted long-needed attention from drug makers, Fauci said.

“We have been working on our own Ebola vaccine, but we never could get any buy-in from the companies,” he said.

Fear is growing internationally as the Ebola virus spreads across Western Africa, and health officials are quarantining airline passengers with symptoms of the deadly disease.

For years, pharmaceutical companies have seen little potential for profit in Ebola, because outbreaks are unpredictable and typically small, Geisbert said.

“It’s not like cancer or heart disease, or even a prevalent infectious disease like malaria,” he said.

Here we have a virus that kills between 50% and 90% of everyone who comes down with it, and has to date no known treatment or cure, but because it breaks out irregularly and then only in mostly poor, rural Africa, our various pharmaceutical giants just didn’t see a need to do anything about it. It’s only after a thousand or so people in somewhat wealthier, urban Africa died, and folks in the West started to sweat a little that the virus might possibly make its way out of Africa altogether, that these companies finally deigned to pay attention to the problem. Because suddenly there’s a chance they might be able to make a buck off of the disease, where before it looked like some BS charity case.

Hooray, capitalism.

Sarah Kliff at Vox has more, in an interview with Ebola researcher Daniel Bausch, a professor at Tulane. Bausch notes that the other lever that’s actually freeing up some money for finding a treatment is that it’s now become a national security issue:

SK: So what stands between that science and getting these drugs to Ebola patients?

DB: Part of that is economics. These outbreaks affect the poorest communities on the planet. Although they do create incredible upheaval, they are relatively rare events. So if you look at the interest of pharmaceutical companies, there is not huge enthusiasm to take an Ebola drug through phase one, two, and three of a trial and make an Ebola vaccine that maybe a few tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people will use.

There’s not a huge demand for this, but there could be other ways to move forward. There are concerns, for example, about Ebola being used as bioterrorism, and that drives a lot of the funding for this. The Department of Defense might be interested in a vaccine if they thought the disease could be used as a weapon.

We need to find the mechanism to get to the next step, and get them out there for actual use.

I wonder if whoever convinced the Pentagon that Ebola was a potential bioweapon did it just to see if that would shake loose some R&D money. I’d like to think so, because at least playing to America’s post-9/11 state of paranoia has the potential to raise some money. A bunch of dead folks in Africa sure didn’t do the trick.

Bausch goes on to say that the only place that’s been funding any research into Ebola treatments has been the NIH, which usually does the basic research on these things before handing them off to the private sector for testing and development. But in this case, the private sector looked at Ebola and thought, “hey, we can’t make any money off of that,” and so the NIH has had to shoulder the entire load.

Here’s the thing: we’ve got, what, 3 or 5 or more pills on the market to help men get erections? Imagine if the R&D money that went into just one of those had been put into finding an Ebola vaccine 5 or 10 years ago. I’m all for quality of life, but the only place where a boner could possibly be more important than somebody’s life is on the budget sheet of a for-profit drug company. I’m sorry, but that’s just perverse, and if it’s not an indictment of for-profit healthcare then it’s at least a very strong case for a much more robust public system than what we currently have.

*Apparently, some researchers think that the Plague of Athens in 430 BCE, which may have killed as many as 100,000 people and caused Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War, was an Ebola outbreak. Go figure.

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