Ebola Cure Not Fully Developed Because Big Pharma Not Interested In Saving Lives Of Poor People In Africa

from the back-burner dept

As you may have heard, there’s been a somewhat scary Ebola outbreak in western Africa. You may have also heard about what some are calling a “secret miracle serum” that effectively stops the impact of the virus for those who catch it. It’s an experimental drug that hasn’t undergone human clinical trials yet, but it was apparently given to a couple of Americans and appears to be working. There’s some indication that it would take a couple months to produce a larger number of doses — though, again, the lack of testing here means that people really aren’t sure if it will work (or if there are serious side effects).

That said, as one article notes, a big reason that there hasn’t been much testing on this is because treating poor people in Africa just isn’t very profitable for the drug companies:

?These outbreaks affect the poorest communities on the planet. Although they do create incredible upheaval, they are relatively rare events,? said Daniel Bausch, a medical researcher in the US who works on Ebola and other infectious diseases.

?So if you look at the interest of pharmaceutical companies, there is not huge enthusiasm to take an Ebola drug through phase one, two, and three of a trial and make an Ebola vaccine that maybe a few tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people will use.?

While some may question whether or not Bausch’s statement is just from frustration from where he is, Big Pharma execs more or less confirm his claims. Remember that it was just a few months ago that we wrote about Bayer’s CEO claiming directly that they make drugs for rich people who can afford it:

Bayer Chief Executive Officer Marijn Dekkers called the compulsory license “essentially theft.”

“We did not develop this medicine for Indians,” Dekkers said Dec. 3. “We developed it for western patients who can afford it.”

As we noted at the time, it’s worth comparing that statement to what George Merck, the former President of Merck said many decades ago concerning the pharma industry:

We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.

It seems that we’ve come a long way from those days.

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Comments on “Ebola Cure Not Fully Developed Because Big Pharma Not Interested In Saving Lives Of Poor People In Africa”

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Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: A perfect example

Yup. The “secret miracle serum” was government developed at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory a few blocks from my house in Winnipeg. I commute past it on my way to work.

It’s interesting how the research came to be “jointly conducted” in the US. A researcher quit his job in the Winnipeg lab, stole 22 vials of (non-infectious) Ebola research materials – Ebola DNA and whatnot – threw them in the trunk of his car and headed across the border to his new job at the US lab. U.S. Customs discovered the vials and arrested him.


To put the danger of having the lab nearby into perspective, a few months after it opened the area around it was evacuated. It turned out it was the car battery place across the street that prompted the evacuation after a large amount of battery acid spilled. It could have turned into a harmful gas.

This is what I love about Winnipeg. A level 4 containment biolab playing with Ebola and other viruses gets evacuated because the folks across the street spilled something.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: A perfect example

I agree, but this isn’t really an indictment of “Big Pharma”. They are doing the same thing you and I are doing: not curing ebola. If someone thinks there’s a duty to cure ebola for free (or, more realistically, at their own great expense), they should get working on that.

sorrykb (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: A perfect example

I can fault “Big Pharma” for a lot of things (many of which are already mentioned in the article), but the Ebola crisis is more of an example of a need to commit public health resources (government-funded) to fighting disease and equally the conditions that facilitate the transmission and spread of diseases.

Ebola is, for all its horrors, extremely rare, and it’s not just companies that have very little incentive to do anything about it. Even getting purely altruistic donors or researchers to devote resources to it is challenging, given that there are so many more diseases (malaria being one example) that affect so many more people, in Africa and elsewhere. Its rarity makes it a low priority, until of course we encounter an outbreak such as this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 A perfect example

More people die per yer due to the flu than have ever died to Ebola. Ebola has never been seen to be transmitted through air like the flu and is much less contagious than many other diseases including the measles (which is also more deadly). Ebola is a non-issue.

Chris Rhodes (profile) says:

Re: A perfect example

Of course, the role of the government in making it too expensive to conduct drug trials on all but the most potentially lucrative drugs must be completely ignored to arrive at this conclusion.

“It’ll cost you a billion dollars to get a drug past the FDA.”
“Well, I guess I’ll stop research any drug unlikely to make at least a billion dollars, then.”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: A perfect example

First, the FDA doesn’t come into play on this. This isn’t a US thing. Second, while the costs of drug trials are significant, it’s far from clear that this is the main driver of anything at all. After all, much of those costs are offset by government incentives and the fact that the majority of the initial research (and a lot of the later research) is done by universities and funded by the taxpayer. Also, it appears that drug companies spend at least as much on marketing as on getting a drug through FDA approval.

While drug companies intentionally make it difficult to speak knowledgeably about costs because they refuse to release breakdowns of the costs associated with drug development, manufacture, and marketing (which is a pretty huge red flag by itself), it is interesting to note that smaller drug companies manage to bring drugs to market for around half a billion dollars altogether.

CSMcDonald (profile) says:

Not a cut & dry issue....

This serum is so experimental that there are serious bio-ethical issues involved in testing it – alternative headline if they started testing it in poor African countries “Big Pharma Uses Poor People As Guinea Pigs For Unproven Drugs”


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not a cut & dry issue....

And that is the sad thing about these types of drugs: Research at universities can only take it so far. To get a drug through the stages, you need serious financing and if the ailment isn’t all that common it is not going to get sufficiently financed privately either.

When we are talking about ethics it is clear that people who cannot understand the implications are at a dilemma. On the other hand, people who can be led to understand the risk should have the choice. Since Ebola is 50%+ deadly it easily becomes a question of if it is more important to survive or to risk sideeffects. When we are talking the people without the means to understand the choice, it is an ethical dilemma to give it or not to give it. Otherwise this ailment has too high a mortality for people to not want their chances improved…

Anonymous Coward says:

In all fairness to Big Pharma (who it is hard to defend) the FDA bears some of the blame for this. The certification of drugs is in many cases ridiculously convoluted and tiresome. If it was somewhat easier (and cheaper) to get these drugs through the FDA’s screening process then maybe Big Pharma would be more interested in low margin drugs.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Bayer Chief Executive Officer Marijn Dekkers called the compulsory license “essentially theft.”

Very well, Mr. Dekkers. I’ll grant you that. Then, by applying your exact same line of reasoning, your policy of providing life-saving medicine only to rich folks who can afford it is “essentially murder.”

If I have to choose between supporting theft and supporting murder, I’ll take the thief’s side any day.

Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Technically it’s a condition on a government granted monopoly.

What Bayer and other companies would like to forget is that copying is an ability, not a right (and certainly not theft).

The limitation on copying is granted by the government (and ultimately by the society it represents.. no, don’t laugh :D) on the premises that it’ll serve society in some way (by giving the thing up into the public domain after a certain time).

Governments certainly have the right, to put further conditions on giving this monopoly, like compulsive licensing, when society decides that it is worth more than what it requires normally.

Anonymous Coward says:

Lets see if I understand.

I am expected to put up my money and bear te cost to develop a product for which there is no profitable demand and for which any profit received will be confiscated to support a group of people who ave a need and no means of support.

Why would I as an investor want to own shares in a company that operates in this fashion?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Why would I as an investor want to own shares in a company that operates in this fashion?

You wouldn’t.

Happily, there are many people vastly superior to you (which wouldn’t take much) who would. But I’m sure this is well beyond your pitifully feeble comprehension and it’s certainly outside the scope of your myopic, self-centered, entirely-driven-by-greed world view. So don’t trouble your pretty vacuous little head with it.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Looking out for yourself is not immoral, in and of itself. However, holding your own self-interest in such high regard that you are willing to knowingly harm others in the pursuit of your own self-interest… that is the very definition of evil in any legitimate system of morality. (And apparently the definition of “virtue” under the barbaric morality of Ayn Rand, which is why reasonable people see Objectivists as an existential threat to everyone around them, on the same level as Scientology.)

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Because I have neither the technical skills to develop an ebola cure, nor the resources to finance those who do in producing one. Claiming that I have some obligation to contribute to this, specifically, makes exactly as much sense as claiming that a child has the obligation to try to rescue a person pinned under a car: as good as it would be to do so, it’s simply beyond my capacity.

There is, in fact, a major project of great potential benefit to society that I am directly contributing my time and talents to, but as I’m under NDA, (and as boasting about it would be in direct violation of my moral code,) I don’t really have much to say about it at the moment except to be careful with your assumptions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

First, nothing you have said indicates that you can’t invest money into an a non-profitable company dedicated to curing disease, which is the topic staring this little sub-thread.

Second, if you are contributing your time and talents in exchange for money, that’s hardly an analogous situation, is it?

Third, have you heard of a humblebrag?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Let me explain it to you then. Because first these are companies that through the grace of the public have been given government granted monopolies that have allowed them to amass tremendous fortunes such that the expense of this is not terribly detrimental to the health of the companies. Second, although this is not currently a significant threat in the US that does not mean that it couldn’t become one sometime in the future and wouldn’t it be better to have been proactive enough to have developed a way to deal with such a nasty situation prior to it happening than to wait and have to deal with it in a reactive manner that costs more lives? Third, frankly, these companies (and the US in general) could stand to benefit from actions that generate good will in the rest of the world. Fourth, the 99% in society is largely composed of people who aren’t that pricks that big. Do you understand now?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Because once people see that the company you’ve invested in is nice and caring toward other human beings, they’ll give it more trust and confidence, which in turn leads to more customers and sales.

C’mon, dude, didn’t you ever learn in kindergarten that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?

Anonymous Coward says:

If people such as yourself–and most of the commenters–actually cared about Africans (you don’t) you’d have been screaming for DDT to be used again in a widespread fashion since malaria kills 100k/year, and makes ebola look like a piker.

(Oh, and please: save me the “Silent Spring” nonsense. Even if it weren’t junk science, measuring the loss of bird life against the human toll makes you little more than a ghoul that, as I noted above, doesn’t actually care much about human life.)

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Is this garbage still going around?

One of the primary points in favor of banning DDT is that it was no longer working. Even back when Silent Spring came out, it was becoming more and more clear that DDT had lost its effectiveness, because improper application of the pesticide had placed massive, highly effective selective pressure on mosquito populations, causing them to adapt in much the same way as the abuse of antibiotics today is directly responsible for the emergence of multi-antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria.

The problem with DDT isn’t just that it’s toxic to larger animals such as birds, (but also mammals, including human beings, since it accumulates in tissues,) but that it’s toxic to larger animals and does not help against malaria. Not anymore.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Absolutely correct. But it’s probably asking too much of the scientifically illiterate to grasp that evolution happens — sometimes much faster than one might guess — and that it has consequences.

This seems to be particularly true in primitive societies like the United States, where religious fanatics have done their best to drown out sober, serious, adult conversation in favor of their superstitions and myths.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Funny thing is, the US doctor who now has Ebola, was in Africa doing charitable work for a Christian charity named Samaritan’s Purse. There goes those dang religious fanatics, traipsing around the world putting themselves in harms way to help others. But don’t let the facts get in the way of your bigotry, m’kay?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Nice strawman you built there. Not all religious people are religious fanatics. Those whose faith compels them to travel halfway around the world and treat one of the most horrifying diseases in recent history are not fanatics. Fanatics are the ones who travel to Africa and tell them that Ebola is God’s punishment for allowing Gay people.

Case says:

Re: Re: Re:

Nope, just as wrong as the original poster. DDT was never banned for use against Malaria, neither for toxicity nor for lack of efficiency or anything else. Pesticide resistance is obviously an issue, as are the side effects, but it continues to be used as the often best available solution.

The whole “DDT was banned despite helping against Malaria” thing simply never happened.

sorrykb (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Anonymous Coward wrote

If people such as yourself–and most of the commenters–actually cared about Africans (you don’t) you’d have been screaming for DDT to be used again in a widespread fashion since malaria kills 100k/year

Under the Stockholm Convention, DDT is banned for all uses EXCEPT to combat malaria. The World Health Organization also endorsed the use of DDT as part of its anti-malaria program in 2006. So, no, environmentalists have NOT gotten in the way of malaria control. And the effect of DDT on birds is well-documented. Here’s a recent article from a source that hardly relies on “junk science”: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ddt-still-killing-birds-in-michigan/

Eli C-R says:

There is a lot of bio-medical research that happens outside American big pharma. There are plenty of European companies that could do the research as well as universities all over the world. I don’t buy the “it wouldn’t be profitable” explanation as it would be a huge PR win for whoever develops the cure.

Perhaps its just really really hard to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

As a biochemistry professor at a research university, I can tell you we need some sort of project-oriented institution (whether a company or some other entity) to push products through to completion. Research universities excel at poking around to see what might be going on in a disease, but getting to a human-ready treatment requires an enormous and focused investment of time, money, and man power. Much of this is extremely boring sloggin — not the sort of work that research faculty would use to get tenure. In my view, the only ways to get such investment are the incentive of profit (companies) or a massive long-term investment of a government in a focused research institute. At least in the US, our ‘approve-the-budget-every-year-depending-on-the-political-winds’ approach basically makes latter option impossible, so we’re left with whatever is profitable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

” In my view, the only ways to get such investment are the incentive of profit (companies) or a massive long-term investment of a government in a focused research institute”

I think we need both, with the government funding focused on issues that have lesser profit potential but high human need.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I agree, but the real problem is that the highest human needs do not have “lesser” profit potential; they literally have negative profit potential, as they would directly undermine existing revenue streams.

If you need any help imagining the response of existing pharmaceutical companies to a genuine cure for cancer, diabetes, arthritis, or any number of chronic ailments, you need look no farther than the music industry’s reaction to file-sharing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is not that different in Europe. The costs are slightly higher and the public research funding is below US standards.

I would make a distinction between real “research” and “development”. Research would here relate to pure land winning poking around, while development would include the process of getting an actual product developed. Research works well on universities today. Development, not so much.

So far the solution has been to make the poking patentable so the sale to private companies gets less obscure, but development is done by private companies today and changing that would make a public “research institute” quite a different thing than the research we know today. Don’t get me wrong, it could happen, but the current political movement is in the diametrically opposite direction.

Anon says:

I don’t really see what’s objectionable about this. From a numbers perspective, prior to this outbreak there have been 2,387 Ebola cases (according to adding up all the cases listed on the World Health Organization’s fact sheet, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/) since it first showed up in 1976. The disease has typically only popped up every couple of years or so when it infects (and kills) a few hundred people; the worst outbreak prior to this one saw 425 people infected (with 224 dead); that was in 2000.

I’m not saying that Big Pharma isn’t full of a bunch of profiteering a-holes (it is); but up until now Ebola hasn’t been a particularly big problem. From a numbers perspective it still isn’t – influenza, for instance, infects between 5-20% of the American population every year and causes the hospitalizations of 200,000 people in the US alone every year (www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/disease.htm), while this Ebola outbreak currently has fewer than 2,000 infectees.

Ebola is a truly horrendous disease, but working on a vaccination and treatment for a disease that has (until now) infected only 2,387 people in 38 years was not a priority when limited resources were being focused on illnesses affecting a lot more people. Malaria, for instance, killed around 600,000 people in 2012 – most of them Africans(www.who.int/features/factfiles/malaria/en/).

An argument can certainly be made that Big Pharma only started caring about this situation when it started affecting Americans (and thus could potentially be profitable). But the fact is that Ebola historically hasn’t affected that many people, and the resources that could have been spent on Ebola were spent on diseases and illnesses killing much larger groups of people.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The thing is, influenza at its worst kills around 10% of infectees, and those are mainly the weakest of the population: infants, the elderly, and those who are ill already or have weakened immune systems. The vast majority of people who get it make a full recovery very quickly, with no lasting effects. (How many times have you had the flu?)

(And no, I’m deliberately not counting the Spanish Influenza here. That’s more of a scare story than anything relevant to the modern age; the horrors it wrought a century ago were due far more to contemporary medical science not knowing how to deal with it than to the disease itself, and another outbreak of the same virus would not have nearly the same effect today.)

Ebola’s effects, on the other hand, are positively horrendous, killing between 50% and 90% half of infectees and leaving behind severe lasting effects on those who survive. Yes, it hasn’t ever become an epidemic in a highly urbanized nation yet, but all it would take is once…

Anon says:

Re: Re: Re:

None of which changes that Ebola has until now only infected 2,387 people in 38 years. That it kills – and kills HORRENDOUSLY – doesn’t make it a higher priority than the many, many diseases in Africa that kill far more people every year than Ebola has in its entire existence (1,590 people prior to this outbreak.)

A Spanish-flu type pandemic is also far more likely to occur in an urbanized nation than an Ebola pandemic.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think we need to be careful, as there are two issues at play in big pharma. The first is the reprehensible practice in which a company refuses to sell existing life-saving drugs to protect their profit margin. The second is the much harder question of how to develop drugs for diseases that only affect people who can’t pay for it. The second issue — the issue at hand with Ebola — can only be solved if we can create incentives for drug companies to work on such unprofitable projects.

One idea (not sure if it’s a good one) would be to use tax-incentives to create industry consortiums where multiple companies can collaborate. In such a scheme, each company makes a relatively small commitment, but progress could be made.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You think the 1% doesn’t pay taxes?

In many cases, no. Remember, corporations are people too, my friend, and there are plenty of documented cases of large, powerful corporations using tax evasion techniques not available to us normal folks to literally pay no or even negative taxes (receiving more money in tax breaks than they pay out in taxes.) GE is perhaps the most infamous example, but they are by no means the only one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Receiving more in tax breaks than you pay out is not the same as not paying taxes. If I get a $50 off coupon for a $60 item, I am receiving more in breaks than I am paying, but I’m still paying.

I wholeheartedly agree that the U.S. tax code is ridiculously complex and suboptimal, but the notion that rich people don’t pay taxes is just as ridiculous (especially if we consider sales tax and other non-income taxes, which are sometimes the only taxes that poorer people are paying).

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

urine idjit…
it is not LITERALLY that rich people pay no taxes (although there are some who by dint of tax skullduggery do not), but that they do NOT pay their ‘fair share’…

rich people also use FAR MORE RESOURCES than poor people: not too many poor people have a private jet that takes advantage of airports built with the 99%’s tax dollars; nor do poor people jet-set around the world as much as wealthy people…

it is off the backs of the poor and middle class that modern stadiums get built, NOT with the pocket money of the team owners… it is off the backs of the poor and middle class taxed at a HIGHER RATE (see, buffet, warren: ‘my secretary pays a higher tax rate than i do’) that EVERYTHING, including Empire’s enforcement arm, the military, gets paid for…

greedy libertards like you make me want to puke… you have NO RESPECT for anyone but the wealthy, your ‘values’ are skewed 180 degrees from normal… you have totally bought into the ‘greed is good’ mantra at the expense of 99% of your fellow human beans…

and yet there will be a look of hurt and surprise when the destitute gangs drag you and yours out for a necktie party…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“One idea (not sure if it’s a good one) would be to use tax-incentives to create industry consortiums where multiple companies can collaborate. In such a scheme, each company makes a relatively small commitment, but progress could be made.”

I have a better idea. Let’s try this:

“Dear Pharma Company Executive:

You have been selected to assist with our mission of spurring timely innovation in drug research, manufacture, and distribution. Accordingly, at 10:30 AM on March 16, 2016, one of your children is scheduled to be injected with Ebola. We trust that you will by then have in plan sufficient research and development resources to make this event moot. If not, we offer our sincere condolences.”

Dave Cortright says:

The Onion nailed this a week ago`


“…While all measures are being taken to contain the spread of the contagion, an effective, safe, and reliable Ebola inoculation unfortunately remains roughly 50 to 60 white people away, if not more… We are confident, however, that with each passing white person, we’re moving closer to an eventual antigenic that will prevent and possibly even eradicate the disease.”

Deimal (profile) says:

Yes, but...

Western medicine has cured polio, immunized against a wide-range of diseases and yet in places like Africa (and California, and India, and the U.K., etc) rabid religious nuts and power-mad idiots routinely convince the uneducated and others to not use it (evil western plots to sterilize people for example).

Considering the primary method of transmitting Ebola is through exchange of bodily fluids, I think education is the key to combatting and containing it, not necessarily a cure. Regardless of what ever is discussed here, resources for research and development, regardless of how it’s funded, are limited. If there’s an alternative to spending, quite literally, billions of dollars to curing something, such as education and hygiene, that’s probably where the initial focus should be. Private pharmaceutical companies have issues no doubt, but I don’t see vast streams of funding flooding into development of cure in the Public or Charitable sectors either.

BernardoVerda says:

A couple of questions about past Big Pharma R&D priorities

I’m hoping someone can refresh my memory. (or at least provide enough info to narrow search engine enquiries to something manageable).

1) I recall hearing a news story on the CBC (our national news broadcaster) some years ago about an effective new treatment (a drug) developed to combat some serious tropical disease. It was shelved because it was “too expensive” — but it subsequently turned out to be good for minimizing wrinkles and was resurrected as a component for high-end facial cream. What was the product, and what was the disease?

2) Similarly, another news story from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company); it was discovered that some fairly common compound was likely an effective treatment for a common serious ailment (not a “tropical disease, but something actual relevant in good old N. America) but research lagged because the chemical in question was too common and too cheap and probably not patentable (or at least not profitable). If I recall correctly, there was even an effort to raise funds and do the necessary research/trials outside of the pharmaceutical companies, as the pharmaceutical companies weren’t interested in pursuing the matter. Again, the same question: What was the product, and what was the disease?

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Where's the cure for confirmation bias?

There is truth in this, which is why we need government.

Conservatives have an underlying “theology” that everything should be privatized, because, “

The private sector can do everything cheaper and more efficiently.

Unfortunately, the private sector must also be able to make a profit, which means that despite the above “theology”, the private sector can not do everything.

So if we need a vaccine for Ebola, West Nile, or equine encephalitis, and the private sector cannot do these at a profit, shall we all then simply die?

So I propose a corollary to the privatization “theology”:

Those things that the private sector cannot or will not do, that are needful, must be done by the public sector.

So in this case, since the private sector cannot make an Ebola vaccine at a profit, and if we need an Ebola virus (which I think is a given based on its contagiousness and mortality) then it falls to government.

The problem is that the private sector bias overrides in every case, so that even when we desperately need a solution, if the private sector can’t do it at a profit, well we just do without.

It should not be that way.

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