Almost a decade ago, scientists from Canada and the United States reported that they had created a vaccine that was 100 percent effective in protecting monkeys against the Ebola virus. The results were published in a respected journal, and health officials called them exciting. The researchers said tests in people might start within two years, and a product could potentially be ready for licensing by 2010 or 2011.
It never happened. The vaccine sat on a shelf. Only now is it undergoing the most basic safety tests in humans but at what expense. Thousands of people are dead from Ebola and it has become an epidemic raging out of control in West Africa.
Now, as the growing epidemic devastates West Africa and is seen as a potential threat to other regions as well, governments and aid groups have begun to open their wallets. A flurry of research to test drugs and vaccines is underway, with studies starting for several candidates, including the vaccine produced nearly a decade ago.
The simple truth is, whether any of us cares to admit it, when Ebola started becoming a concern in industrialized countries like the U.S., cures and vaccines hit the fast track. Ebola isn’t a new illness and the mortality rate today is no different than it was years ago. Two things have occurred that have made this outbreak “different”.
First, the world is shrinking. Air travel makes the world accessible to all of us which means that a virus can literally travel as fast as a speeding jet. Second, media is always on and information, factual or not, travels FASTER than a speeding jet. You’d think that Ebola was an epidemic in the U.S. based on media reports over the past few weeks but reality is the U.S. has hardly been affected.
Press and pressure have combined to bring attention and resources to the fight against Ebola. Vaccines cost a lot of money to develop and payback for vaccines occurs over years but two things need to occur if the cost to create the vaccine will ever be recouped. First, a critical mass of people have to take the vaccine so that creation of the vaccine can be justified. Second, someone has to be willing to pay for the vaccine provided to the people who need it.
When Ebola was relegated to West Africa funding for a cure was hard to come by. It’s not that no one cared, it’s just that resources there are scarce and resources were devoted to necessities such as water purification and basic sanitation, not Ebola. Necessity is the mother of invention but in the case of vaccines, money primes the pump.