News / Health

Scant Funds, Rare Outbreaks Leave Ebola Drug Pipeline Slim

A doctor works in a laboratory on collected samples of the Ebola virus at the Center for Disease Control in Entebbe, about 37 km southwest of Uganda's capital Kampala, Aug. 2, 2012.
A doctor works in a laboratory on collected samples of the Ebola virus at the Center for Disease Control in Entebbe, about 37 km southwest of Uganda's capital Kampala, Aug. 2, 2012.
Reuters
Almost 40 years after the Ebola virus was identified in humans by scientists in a microbiology laboratory in Belgium, pharmaceutical researchers have yet to develop an effective drug or vaccine to fight it.

Part of the problem is that the deadly virus is rare and its victims are often poor people living in rural areas of Africa without well-functioning health systems. But there is also little incentive for major pharmaceutical companies to invest in medical solutions when there is little chance of a return.

The number of doses sold is likely to be small and many health officials believe the virus and its death toll could be better controlled with good basic hygiene and the eradication of dangerous bushmeat consumption. Yet there is a drug development pipeline, of sorts, out there - mainly funded by the U.S. government which fears such deadly viruses might one day be developed into bioweapons.

"We can do basic research quite cheaply, but when you move from that to trying to develop drugs and vaccines, you get into the need for clinical trials and they are very costly - which is where you would normally start to engage with Big Pharma," said Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at Britain's University of Nottingham. "And clearly they are not going to invest unless there is likely to be some sort of decent return."

Discovered in 1976 after an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then
This colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) obtained March 24, 2014 from the Centers for Disease Control(CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, reveals some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. (AFP PHOTO / CDC / Cynthia Gold)This colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) obtained March 24, 2014 from the Centers for Disease Control(CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, reveals some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. (AFP PHOTO / CDC / Cynthia Gold)
x
This colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) obtained March 24, 2014 from the Centers for Disease Control(CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, reveals some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. (AFP PHOTO / CDC / Cynthia Gold)
This colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) obtained March 24, 2014 from the Centers for Disease Control(CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, reveals some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. (AFP PHOTO / CDC / Cynthia Gold)
Zaire, Ebola causes a severe hemorrhagic fever where victims suffer vomiting, diarrhea and both internal and external bleeding.

In an outbreak in Guinea in West Africa, about 86 suspected cases have been reported, with 62 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Investigations are going on into reported cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone along the border with Guinea.

Bioweapon Fears

"Ebola virus is one of the deadliest killers known," said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Britain's University of Reading. "[It] is one of the things that keeps public health officials up at night. If this virus spread between people more easily, it would probably be more deadly than the black plague. Fortunately, up to this point, it has not."

So while for drugmakers there is little commercial future in Ebola, some research groups in the United States are working in conjunction with the U.S. government to find treatments.

In March, the University of Texas and three other organizations got $26 million in funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to find a cure for Ebola and another deadly virus Marburg in case they are ever used for bioterrorism in the United States.

Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, which teamed up with the U.S. Department of Defense on an injectable drug treatment for Ebola, started an initial Phase I trial in healthy volunteers in January.

Several small biotech companies and U.S. university departments are also developing potential vaccines, but this work has yet to advance from animal studies into clinical trials in humans - so any use in people now would be very risky.

U.S.-based Inovio and privately held Vaxart are among those with experimental vaccines in animal testing, while GlaxoSmithKline last year acquired Swiss vaccine firm Okairos with an early-stage Ebola product.

"There are a few experimental vaccines, but the question is whether anybody would take on the costs of manufacture based on the likely number of doses they would eventually sell," said Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Reading University. "The numbers of people infected are low, and at the end of the day somebody has to fund the production of a drug or vaccine. As things stand that is unlikely."

Drug Trials

The immense difficulty and high cost of conducting human clinical trials for a potential drug or vaccine are prohibitive, experts point out, since Ebola cases are generally far-flung, rare and unpredictable.

"For a start there are simply not enough patients and you wouldn't know when the next outbreak was going to happen," said Jones. "Even then you couldn't guarantee there would be enough people to run a trial. Which means you would have to go from the best evidence in animal models."

Some scientists say the current outbreak in Guinea could be an opportunity to do just that - offering a chance to push the field forward and test potential vaccines or drugs.

Thomas Geisbert at the University of Texas Medical Branch is working on a vaccine known as vesicular stomatitis virus-based Ebola vaccine, or VSV, which he said had shown 100 percent efficacy in tests on animals.

The shot, which has not gone through clinical trials in humans, could, he said, be issued on "compassionate grounds" to people in Guinea at risk in the current Ebola outbreak.

"You have to reach a balance between advancing science, medical ethics and saving lives," he told Reuters. "It's not easy, but how many people faced with the prospect of near certain death would opt to take their  chances with the virus?"

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Hassan Koroma from: Sierria Leone
March 28, 2014 7:35 PM
Thanks to the texas university for the research for the curement of the ebola virus. We're now on prayers for God not to bring that disaster in our country.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs