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Why We Don’t Have an Ebola Vaccine Yet

The Ebola virus hasn’t arrived in Australia yet, but the second U.S. case has attracted the attention of the industrialized world. Fortunately, Ebola is unlikely to kill very many of us; unfortunately, it’s still quite likely to ultimately kill tens of thousands of people on Africa’s western coast. A vaccine is being tested, but it’s nowhere near finished. Meanwhile, the very healthcare workers who have achieved some measure of success in reducing the disease’s mortality rate are contracting Ebola themselves.

Ebola Epidemic Map, 5 October 2014

Image: Mikael Häggström. Generously released into the public domain.

Could we have fixed this problem a decade ago? We’ll never know for certain, but we probably could have.

Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), spoke on this very question over the weekend and minced no words about it:

“NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It’s not like we suddenly woke up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,'” Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.”

CNBC’s Jake Novak sees an opportunity for private biotech companies to step in and fill the gap created by reduced NIH funding, and they’re certainly busy doing that, but the Ebola virus has a 38-year head start. As Novak himself said: “[N]othing demonstrates the basic economic laws of supply and demand, risk and reward, and opportunity cost better than life-saving drugs.” That’s arguably true. And when the people contracting a deadly disease are low-income and predominantly rural residents of poor west African nations, the private biotech industry is going to assess the selfsame “supply and demand, risk and reward” and decide that funding research to treat it is not profitable—until it actually affects residents of an industrialized country, by which time it might be too late. Private biotech companies are very useful when there’s short-term profit involved, and much less useful when there isn’t.

This is why less profit-driven agencies like the NIH exist, and why they need funding. It also speaks to the broader issue of broader-spectrum science funding—something that has the capacity to improve quality of life for everyone on Earth.

But as easy as it would be to turn this around and make it a criticism of Congress or the private drug research industry, let’s acknowledge that the real problem here isn’t just them; it’s us, as residents of the industrialized world. We have known for over a generation that the Ebola virus is a threat to other people, and we didn’t demand humanitarian intervention from public or private sector entities. And in the unlikely event that this particular chicken does come home to roost in the industrialized world, we will have our own shortsightedness to blame.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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