Why There’s No Ebola Vaccine

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line). (Photo: NIAID)Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line). (Photo: NIAID)

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Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization, nailed it when she blasted the pharmaceutical industry’s failure to develop an Ebola vaccine. “A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay,” Chan said at a press conference last month.

Since it first surfaced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1976, there have been 22 outbreaks, all of them in western and central Africa. Incidentally, viruses like Ebola and HIV first jumped from animals to humans in the DRC during a period of rapid deforestation at the hands of rapacious multinational timber and mining companies. Habitat loss pushed chimpanzees and bats into closer contact with humans and, eventually, became vectors for HIV and Ebola, respectively. From the perspective of free market capitalists, ecological devastation and disease epidemics are simply collateral damage with no impact on the bottom line.

A number of commentators have speculated that, had Ebola landed on US shores sooner, a vaccine would already be available. Big Pharma executives, driven by fear of contagion, would have invested in vaccine research even if it wouldn’t be profitable. After a handful of domestic Ebola cases, we now see a rush to start human trials of a vaccine that was created 10 years ago, tested successfully on monkeys, then shelved for lack of a profitable market.

Clinical trials are finally on the fast track not simply owning to fear. The industry’s decision to move forward was a response to intense public pressure, and, notably, financial sponsorship of clinical trials courtesy of the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies. Now that Ebola has crossed the Atlantic, Big Pharma surely sees dollar signs; in the event of an epidemic, 316 million petrified Americans will promptly roll up their sleeves. It’s a great deal for Big Pharma – government foots the bill for clinical trials, and Big Pharma pockets the profits.

In short, the lack of an Ebola vaccine – and the wildfire spread of the virus – are a direct result of private-sector control over vaccine development and the absence of public health infrastructure that could have contained the outbreak.

Western Africa, like much of the developing world, has little by way of public services to compensate for the looting of its forests and mountains by multinational corporations. Those same corporations, along with Big Pharma, are indifferent to the public health catastrophe (aka “collateral damage”) now unfolding.

Ebola makes for a tragic case study in the perils of profit-driven medicine, but there are other more ordinary diseases that Big Pharma has chosen to write off. For example, I have an uncommon, stubborn gastrointestinal infection that requires several rounds of a drug called Yodoxin to cure. After one course of Yodoxin, my little friends are still in residence, and I require additional rounds to permanently evict them. Alas, the drug has been discontinued for unspecified “business reasons.” That leaves thousands of us to make do with less effective medications and/or cope with lifelong nausea, abdominal pain and fatigue.

The FDA explains: “FDA can’t require a firm to keep making a drug it wants to discontinue. Sometimes these older drugs are discontinued by companies in favor of newer, more profitable drugs . . . FDA works to . . . mitigate drug shortages; however, there are a number of factors that can cause or contribute to drug shortages that are outside of the control of FDA.”

What’s outside of the FDA’s control is the same things that’s outside of all of our control: capitalism.

There is no vaccine for Ebola because our economic system vests virtually all decision making in the private sector. We do so knowing that for-profit companies exist to maximize profits. It doesn’t matter if they’re selling medicine, gasoline, soda pop or credit default swaps – the corporations that make these products do so for one and the same reason.

Big Pharma’s greed isn’t some kind of aberration; it’s an inherent feature of free-market capitalism: A capitalist system, by design, puts profits over people. The handful of sectors that remain under government control, such as water, highways and public schools, anticipate and deliver services that meet the public’s needs (or, at least, used to). Not just wealthy people’s needs or white people’s needs or able-bodied people’s needs but, assuming the government has not been crippled by austerity measures, everybody’s needs.

On the other hand, sectors controlled by the free market serve only certain people (i.e. those who can pay) and only under certain circumstances. If market research projects insufficient demand for a product or service to meet corporate profit goals, that product or service doesn’t come to be, regardless of the fact that it’s vital for the health of people or the environment.

Capitalism is inimical to human health and well-being because it rolls like this: If you fit into the right market demographic and can afford to pay, you get the goods. If not, tough luck. Tough luck for you, tough luck for your community, tough luck for the planet.

Access to medicine and other basic necessities should not be a function of luck. Americans are divided on many issues, but most of us believe that caring for each other is a core value of any healthy society. Luck is not a value; luck is a copout, a rationalization of a capitalist system that, by its nature, cannot meet the basic needs of all of its citizens.

Capitalism has shown us over and again that it cannot take care of us and, indeed, doesn’t even try to. We deserve and should demand better.