This public-health success was driven by international, multi-sector cooperation rather than by market forces

by Hans Dembowski

Ebola vaccine proven effective in clinical trial

The new vaccine should prove very useful to contain any future Ebola outbreak. Market dynamics on their own did not bring it about. The pharmaceutical was developed in international, multi-sector cooperation, with government agencies, academic institutions and charitable organisations playing crucial roles.

Researchers report that an innovative Ebola vaccine proved to be effective in a clinical trial in West Africa. The trial was run during the recent Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Almost 6000 persons were immunised, and none of them was infected. Moreover, there were hardly any serious side effects.

Authorities in the USA and the EU have granted Merck, Sharp and Dohme, the US based pharma multinational, fast track permission to produce the vaccine. The company has pledged to provide 300,000 doses to prepare for an eventual future outbreak. Immunising people close to infected persons should help to contain such a health crisis. Funding will be provided by the vaccine alliance Gavi, an international public-private partnership.

Ebola is considered a neglected tropical disease (NTD). Profit-driven corporations hardly invest in medications relating to this category of illnesses because the patients concerned lack purchasing power. To find methods for preventing and curing NTDs, funding from governments, international organisations, charities and independent academic institutions is needed.

The new Ebola vaccine was indeed invented by a Canadian government agency. Government agencies of countries, various universities and charitable institutions were involved in research and development or contributed to running the trial.

In terms of public health, the new vaccine is a major step forward. Moreover, it is globally relevant. Ebola is a very rare disease that haunts remote sub-Saharan regions. However, it may spread fast, and the West African crisis, which killed more than 11,000 of some 23,000 infected people, sent shock waves through the international community. Some people in rich countries reacted hysterically and wanted to discontinue all flights from the affected world region. In our era of mass travel, infectious diseases are global issues.

The new vaccination is an example of international, multi-sectoral responses being needed to deal with them. Market forces alone cannot safeguard public health. It is important to bear this in mind at a time when the next budget director of the USA is casting doubt on the relevance of government-funded research.  

Even more fundamentally, it makes sense to spell out again and again that the market-driven models economists love are just that: models. They do not reveal the full complexity of the world, or even human needs. Private-sector companies are important, including in the health sector, but on their own, they do not give rise to the healthcare systems societies need.

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