Africans are furious that an experimental vaccine — known as ZMapp — has been given to two American volunteers who contracted the deadly Ebola virus but hasn’t been made available where the outbreak so far has taken 932 lives since March, mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Their anger is understandable, but the American government should not be faulted for its actions. There simply isn’t a ready supply of the vaccine.
However, it is troubling that the expedited development of the vaccine may have been hindered by a single factor — money.
The pharmaceutical companies that are so important to the process of developing effective vaccines share the same values that motivate all businesses: They need to make money to satisfy their shareholders and to ensure their financial survival.
The Ebola virus has struck in a part of the world where wealth is so scarce that the prospect of profits from an expensive investment in the development of a new vaccine is uncertain at best.
“When you have a population or situation with Ebola where it only sporadically occurs, and it occurs really in the world’s poorest populations, it’s not exactly an attractive candidate for the pharmaceutical industry on the economic side,” Dr. Daniel Bausch, an associate professor of tropical medicine at the Tulane University School of Public Health, told reporters this week.
“We have good vaccine candidates, and some good drug candidates that have gone through fairly extensive testing for Ebola, and at least reduce the mortality rate in monkeys,” he continued.
Right now, although the vaccines given the two American volunteers may work, there are no specific treatments or vaccines available to control Ebola outbreaks.
More than four years ago, according to press reports, American scientists developed vaccine candidates that protected monkeys from strains of Ebola, but these vaccines were never tested in human clinical trials even though one small trial had a 100 percent success rate.
In Bausch’s view, cost is the single biggest factor preventing such trials in humans.
While the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. government often finance the early testing of a vaccine, pharmaceutical companies typically provide the funding needed for the human clinical trials that would, in time, take a drug or vaccine to market.
Because of the crisis in Africa, the development of one experimental Ebola vaccine has been expedited, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The institute’s director, Anthony Fauci, reported that human clinical trials will begin next month
However, he cautioned, it still could take years before the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness in humans is established.
Researchers are hindered by ethical concerns when planning to test the new vaccine on humans, said Nancy Sullivan, chief of the Biodefense Research Section of NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center.
In 2010, Sullivan led the team that developed an experimental vaccine that protected monkeys against two lethal strains of Ebola.
“We obviously can’t expose people to the Ebola virus” in order to know whether a vaccine is effective, she said.
The alternative is to vaccinate high-risk human populations as a means of testing such a drug, but that’s also problematic “unless we vaccinate all of Africa, which isn’t feasible,” she said.
In short, there’s no easy solution to the truly disastrous outbreak of the Ebola virus, so the best bet is for health care workers to take every precaution available to keep it from spreading even further.
Experts insist that existing procedures should impede the spread of the deadly disease provided the affected population avoids making things worse by ignoring instructions.
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