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Why There Is No Available Ebola Vaccine

A vaccine was found to be 100% effective at protecting monkeys against Ebola, but pharma’s business model kept it on the shelf.

Why There Is No Available Ebola Vaccine
[Vaccine: Christian Delbert via Shutterstock]

New York City officials have been working hard to prevent the public from panicking after a doctor living in Harlem was diagnosed with Ebola. “He did not have a stage of disease that creates a risk of contagiousness on the subway,” Dr. Mary Bassett, the city health commissioner, said. “We consider it extremely unlikely, the probability being close to nil, that there will be any problem related to his taking the subway system.”

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Which makes sense: Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids like blood, mucus, feces, and vomit. It is not spread through the air. But despite the extremely low risk of contracting Ebola in New York City, fear of the disease’s high mortality rate still has some people wearing face masks on the subway.

And as the death toll from the disease outbreak in West Africa nears 5,000, the obvious question is: Why is there no vaccine?

One answer, the New York Times reports today, is that there is an effective vaccine. Almost a decade ago, it was found to be 100% effective at protecting monkeys against the disease. But, despite researchers expecting the drug to be ready for licensing by 2010 or 2011, it never came to market.

Bringing a new vaccine to market costs $1 billion to $1.5 billion. Ebola has the unprofitable qualities of being both relatively rare and infecting a mostly poor population. No pharma company wanted to foot the bill for human trials and production.

The drug eventually made its way to the World Health Organization, which is currently testing it and another Ebola vaccine for safety in healthy volunteers. Other vaccines may be ready for testing next year.

It’s not just Ebola drugs that have the problem of being unappealing to the companies that could develop them–treatments for malaria and tuberculosis can hit the same roadblocks. One way the government might incentivize drug companies to produce more treatments related to dangerous but unprofitable diseases like these, New Yorker writer James Surowiecki suggests, is for the government to award prize money to companies for developing new drugs in exchange for the company giving up the right to sell the product. “The drug company would get paid and would avoid all the expenses of trying to push a new product (which you don’t want with a last-resort antibiotic, anyway),” he writes. “Society would get a new drug, and public-health officials would be able to control how it was promoted and used.”

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About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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