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Where is “Big Pharma” in the Ebola Epidemic?

Image via Flickr by Army Medicine

There has been a lot of news coverage surrounding the Ebola outbreak in Africa. About 7,000 people have been killed so far with nearly 19,000 infected. Only a couple of cases have been reported in the U.S., but it still makes people wonder why “Big Pharma” hasn’t solved the Ebola epidemic yet. Currently, there is no drug or vaccine available to treat Ebola. However, several research firms are racing to find a cure.

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Progress on an Ebola Vaccine

Vaccines are used to train the immune system to fend off disease before it has a chance to take hold. Typically it takes decades to develop effective vaccines, and then they need refinement over time. However, clinical trials are being fast tracked by some research firm because the Ebola epidemic is so serious.

Two Ebola vaccines are currently undergoing clinical trials in humans. One was made by the National Institutes of Health and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in the U.S. and the other comes from the Public Health Agency of Canada. GSK’s Ebola vaccine has been tested on 20 volunteers. It apparently does create an immune response and is safe. Trials of this drug are also being conducted in the UK, Mali, and Switzerland. Researchers are still waiting on information about how long the vaccine’s protection would last.

The Canadian vaccine is also being tested in the U.S. and Switzerland. Plus, trials are being planned for Kenya and Gabon. There were 34 original trial volunteers and the initial tests show that the vaccine is safe. Further trials are needed to determine its immune response.

There are ethical concerns about doing clinical trials at such a fast pace. The vaccines contain the live virus in a weakened state, so they have to be temperature controlled to maintain their effectiveness. Plus, long-term effects cannot be determined. Because of the rush, drug companies want indemnity in case something goes wrong.

On top of ethical concerns, the government has to decide who is eligible for the vaccine. There are all sorts of production costs to consider and supply chain systems are not set in place. There is also no projected timeframe on when the Ebola vaccine will be ready for distribution.

Drugs to Treat Patients Infected with Ebola

Even though an Ebola vaccine is being created, there is still no drug to treat people already infected with the disease. Experimental Ebola drugs do exist, but they don’t have major manufacturing backing them. To save time, researchers think that the best way to approach the Ebola drug situation is to look for already existing drugs that might be effective in treating Ebola patients.

According to Time.com, 53 drugs exisit that could potentially treat Ebola. One of the most promising drugs is ZMapp. It has been used on a few Ebola patients, but there is no research to prove it is effective yet.

Two leading drugs that interfere with the way the Ebola virus replicates inside our cells include Brincidofovir and Favipiravir. The University of Oxford is leading the research behind Brincidofovir. 140 consenting patients will try the drug and then the survival rates will be compared against patients that did not take the drugs. Favipiravir research is being led by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. Results are expected by early 2015.

Lots of smaller research firms are trying to help find a cure for Ebola, but it’s important to recognize the ethical concerns and distribution concerns that come along with this fast track.[/show_to]


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