PHILADELPHIA — This week, the leader of the World Health Organization formally criticized the drug industry, stating that an Ebola vaccine has not yet been developed because the virus only affected developing nations until now. These recent allegations have sparked controversy across the public health field, leaving many to question the intentions of major pharmaceutical companies.
The Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though this deadly illness has been around for over 40 years, pharmaceutical companies showed no concern until the recent epidemic began spreading to wealthier nations. Scientific researchers, including Oxford University’s Professor Adrian Hill, state that if a vaccine had been developed and stored sooner, this year’s outbreak could have been impeded early on, saving thousands of lives.
Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, recently spoke out about issues in the pharmaceutical industry at a regional conference in Cotonou, Benin. She was unequivocal in her position on the subject matter, stating that drug companies have failed to establish previous Ebola vaccines not because it was impossible, but because the affected countries in Africa would not generate enough profit.
“Because Ebola has historically been confined to poor African nations, the R&D [research and development]incentive is virtually non-existent,” said Dr. Chan. “A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.”
Dr. Chan asserted that the World Health Organization has continually warned of the ramifications of greed in the pharmaceutical and public health industry. “WHO has been trying to make this issue visible for ages. Now people can see for themselves,” Chan said.
Today, the development of commercial vaccines is monopolized by just a few mega-companies, including GSK, Sanofi, Merck and Pfizer. As a result, these companies often decide that the market for a vaccine isn’t big enough and therefore wouldn’t provide enough financial benefits for them. This leaves many vaccines to go undeveloped until the number of people affected by the illness is large enough, as we’ve recently seen with Ebola.
Oxford’s Professor Hill began working on a vaccine that could have been used for Ebola years ago, though the product was never developed due to insufficient demand from drug companies. Now that the virus is spreading, however, the demand for Hill’s vaccine has resurfaced.
Hill recently joined in the conversation about Ebola drugs, stating, “There was no business case to make an Ebola vaccine for the people who needed it most: first because of the nature of the outbreak; second, the number of people likely to be affected was, until now, thought to be very small; and third, the fact that the people affected are in some of the poorest countries in the world and can’t afford to pay for a new vaccine. It’s a market failure.”
According to Hill, developing a vaccine for Ebola is less complicated than creating one for other infectious diseases including tuberculosis, HIV and malaria, all of which have more funding.
Hill further criticized the drug companies, emphasizing the number of lives that could have been saved. “There’s a lesson here,” he said. “If we had invested in an Ebola vaccine, had it sitting there as the outbreak comes, you could have nipped it in the bud, been able to vaccinate the region where it started.”
Not everyone agrees with accusations against the pharmaceutical industry, however. Institute for Policy Innovation scholar, Merrill Mathews, believes that the issue lies with systematic problems in the drug approval process. Mathews argues that the process should be streamlined in order to allow drugs to be approved faster and to be less costly, without sacrificing necessary safety precautions. If changes had been made to this process before the Ebola outbreak, a vaccine and a possible cure would already be available.
Mathews also denounced critics of the drug industry, saying that the left continuously insists that pharmaceutical research is driven by profits; however, if this were true, companies would not be working to develop an Ebola vaccine considering that infected patients do not have the means to pay for it.
Despite the recent upheaval of criticism towards the pharmaceutical industry, companies are now testing experimental Ebola vaccines with hopes to have a proven treatment by the end of the year.
– Meagan Douches
Sources: Independent, New York Times, Latin Post, Forbes, UN
Photo: Pakistan Today