Ebola outbreak prompts rapid vaccine research

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The Ebola virus currently plaguing at least five West African nations has up to a 90 percent fatality rate, and yet, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are still no known treatments or vaccines for the disease.

When it comes to treating someone with Ebola, the standard treatment is supportive therapy, which involves maintaining proper bodily functions but doesn’t actually cure the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We are only just beginning to test a cure in human trials such as those conducted in Great Britain last week. A vaccine or, at the very least, an established treatment should have been developed before an epidemic wiped out thousands.

The only explanation for this delay is the lack of incentive for the drug industry. Even when death is staring them right in the face, the only incentive pharmaceutical companies really care about is greenbacks.

There are a few factors that pharmaceutical companies consider when it comes to producing an economically lucrative vaccine. They ideally want to create a vaccine for a disease that noticeably harms a large population, is very widespread and public, mutates often and affects more developed countries.

Influenza, which causes 36,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone, is one of these diseases. Because influenza mutates and goes through changes often enough every year, the body’s immune system does not recognize the virus. As a result, every year pharmaceutical companies have to make new vaccines. Millions of people get these vaccines and pharmaceutical companies make more money.

But when it comes to the Ebola virus, the situation is the exact opposite. Although Ebola symptoms are terrible and noticeable, the disease does not often affect a large population. It also breaks out in some of the least developed countries in the world, where big companies are not interested in economic investment. Forget that any number of people are dying, or even worse, that an outbreak could occur again in the futurethe profit margin is just not there.

More than four years ago an experimental vaccine was shown to have protected monkeys from the Ebola virus, according to the National Institutes of Health. But what prevented this experimental vaccine from going to human trials was the pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to fund them.

Naturally, it takes years of costly tests to develop a reliable and safe vaccine for any disease. As of right now, vaccines are being rushed to aid the populations in Africa, but had this outbreak not occurred it might have been years before a tried and true vaccine was available publicly. Even the current vaccine being mass-produced for the outbreak in Western Africa may yield questionable results, as testing was a rushed process in a state of emergency. This is procrastinating to the max, and in the worst manner.

The pharmaceutical companies put off human trials because it was not economically viable at the time to test and market a vaccine. Now, the outbreak has resulted in almost 3,000 deaths, and possibly more to come, because vaccines weren’t developed years ago when they could have been. Some estimate that as many as 12,000 people may have been infected with Ebola because treatment centers in Africa are overflowing and many people are likely dying in their homes.

As if that weren’t enough, Ebola could mutate even more dangerously in the future if it is not stopped soon. Currently, the disease can only be spread through contact with bodily fluids of an infected individual or animal, but it has the potential to mutate and become airborne, making it much harder to contain. These risks altogether could result in thousands of deaths in months and years to come.

Pharmaceutical companies like to claim that they genuinely care about people, but they needs to reconsider their priorities. It is time for pharmaceutical companies to decide whether they are really here to make drugs, or to make money.