By Rodrigo Uprimny*
The Ebola virus was discovered in 1976 and there have been around twenty very deadly outbreaks since then. So why, then, in the intervening decades, full of intense medical developments, were there no significant advances in the development of a vaccine and effective treatment against Ebola?
The answer is not that Ebola is an especially difficult virus to confront medically, but rather that there has not been sufficient money to research it. For example, Professor Geisbert, from the University of Texas, developed a vaccine in 2005 that is effective in monkeys, but lack of funding prevented it from being adequately tested on humans and therefore available for this current outbreak. The lack of funding to confront this lethal threat is due primarily to the fact that Ebola research is not good business.
According to an article by John Rottingen and others, published in 2013 in The Lancet, 60 percent of medical research is undertaken by private pharmaceutical companies, who seek to obtain and exploit patents. This distorts medical priorities, as research is aimed at creating medications for which there is a stable demand from patients who have the capacity to pay. Chronic illnesses in high income countries are thus the research preference of these companies, as they involve patients that can pay for expensive medicine over the course of many years.
Patents create a disincentive for research on products that permit an immediate cure or prevent illness in poor people. Research to cure Ebola falls into the latter category, as the vaccine would be applied only one or two times, and treatments would be short-term. And, even worse, potential clients would be in Africa. Terrible business.
Thus, it should not surprise us that, through the patent system, pharmaceutical companies dedicate staggeringly more money to study baldness than to study deadly, infectious, tropical diseases.
But why don’t states or philanthropic organizations, which are not guided by profitability concerns? The answer to this question is equally scandalous: because Ebola is a poor person’s disease, which does not threaten the public health of rich countries, as previous outbreaks had affected a few hundred people and had been confined to specific areas of Africa. And as, according to the same Lancet article, 90 percent of medical research is undertaken with resources from rich countries, it is not surprising that public financing to confront Ebola has also been scarce.
The patent system and the choices of rich countries have led to tropical contagious diseases, such as Ebola or malaria, being ignored by medical research, which dedicates only 1 percent of worldwide research funds to these illnesses. And funds only appear when these illnesses get close to Europe and North America.
The current Ebola crisis is not only a terrible humanitarian tragedy, it is a scandalous expression of global health injustices.
* Director of Dejusticia and professor at the Universidad Nacional of Colombia
Photo credit: UN