Government Investments Pay Dividends In Fight Against Ebola

October 14th, 2014

By CHHS Research Assistant Andrew Geltman

The Ebola epidemic has claimed the lives of thousands of people and is so widespread that some have speculated it could lead to the collapse of the Liberian state. The crisis has demonstrated the importance of having effective countermeasures to virulent diseases. Without countermeasures, Ebola’s death rate can be as high as 90 percent. Though the dangers of Ebola have been known for decades and even popularized, the pharmaceutical industry has paid little attention to developing countermeasures for the disease.

The lack of interest to develop Ebola countermeasures from the pharmaceutical industry is based on return on investment for such products. The pharmaceutical industry has high barriers to entry. The development of novel drugs can cost a major company between four and eleven billion dollars, and most research projects never make it past the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process. High development costs cause corporations to choose what diseases they will develop new drugs for carefully. The FDA has pointed out that the characteristics of the marketplace for diseases such as Ebola, in concert with the high barriers to entry for development, causes pharmaceutical companies to forgo investment in treatments.

The federal government has recognized these market failures and has spurred much of the existing development through grant programs administered by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Much of the research and development into countermeasures for Ebola and other similar catastrophic diseases have been in terms of the biodefense context. Although many of these countermeasures where designed for defense purposes, they have broad applicability. A prime example of such a development has been in the widely publicized experimental treatment, ZMapp. The development of ZMapp was largely funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. HHS has also contracted with the company that produces the drug, Mapp Pharmaceuticals, to develop more of the drug. Another drug, TKM-Ebola was developed using funds from the Canadian government and DoD’s Joint Project Manager Transformational Medical Technologies office. DoD and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are also separately attempting to develop an Ebola vaccine.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) developed NIH’s vaccine. The NIH vaccine is about to begin human testing in the U.S., United Kingdom, Mali, and Gambia. The University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development is leading the efforts in the human trials being administered in Mali.

The Ebola outbreak has demonstrated the importance of government leadership in the realm of medical countermeasures where the market provides inadequate incentives to spur development. Without government investment we likely would not even have experimental treatments for the disease. Perhaps, if the country had invested more aggressively into the development of these prophylactic measures, the current Ebola crisis could have been avoided or significantly curtailed.


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