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Are We Unprepared For Another Ebola Outbreak?

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In a recent editorial in Science entitled “Ebola and Zika: Cautionary tales,” Professor Michael T. Osterholm of the University of Minnesota offers the following:

Two years ago, amidst the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the international health community was laser-focused on finding an effective and safe vaccine. By heroic public health actions and luck, the crisis was curtailed without one. Today, hardly a word is mentioned about that crisis or the current status of vaccine development. Yet tomorrow, we could experience another explosive Ebola epidemic that begins in the slums of one of equatorial Africa’s megacities and spreads in deadly waves, where only the availability of an effective vaccine could halt its ruinous progress.

 

Osterholm is correct in stating that things have gone relatively quiet on Ebola. But does that mean that nothing is happening on the R&D front? Actually, a check of clinicaltrials.gov lists 71 studies ongoing in Ebola, the majority of which involve studying novel vaccines or drugs in humans. Furthest along appears to be Merck with planned regulatory filings for its vaccine in 2017. Merck is working with the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) to get its vaccine through late-stage trials, licensure and prequalification by the WHO. In the interim, Merck is providing 300,000 doses of the vaccine for clinical trials and/or emergency situations.

Merck is not alone. Johnson & Johnson has announced that it is starting tests of its vaccine–one that protects against the worst strains of Ebola as well as the dangerous Marburg virus. This vaccine has been developed in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Also heavily involved in Ebola R&D is Gilead, currently known for its hepatitis C cures, Harvoni and Sovaldi. Gilead’s antiviral drug, GS-5734, has the potential for clearing viral RNA that might remain undetected in Ebola patients who have been believed to be cured. While rare, Ebola can come roaring back in these patients months later. GS-5734 could prevent that from happening.

What’s striking about all of this is that here are three of the world’s biggest drug companies seeking vaccines or drugs that will generate little revenue. The patient populations for these treatments are impoverished and will be unable to pay. In all likelihood, if their efforts are successful, these companies will essentially give these vaccines/drugs away to those infected in equatorial Africa or other poor areas of the world. So, why are these companies doing this work? Dr. Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, explains it simply: “We must take action now so that a tragedy on the scale of West Africa never happens again.” Sometimes Big Pharma is not “Bad Pharma.”

Although not much is being said about Ebola these days, one shouldn’t come away with the view that we are totally unprepared for another outbreak. While R&D takes time, we hopefully will soon have vaccines and drugs to aid in another Ebola outbreak.

 

This article was written by John LaMattina from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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