ebola vaccine bigpharma

Is the WHO Blaming BigPharma for Ebola?

No. They’re blaming governments for not investing.

WHO Director General, Dr. Margaret Chan, said on Monday that the lack of an Ebola vaccine is due to Ebola historically being confined to poor ‘African nations.

At the regional committee for Africa in Benin on Monday, Dr. Chan, Director general of the World Health Organization, said that  ‘Ebola emerged nearly four decades ago. Why are clinicians still empty handed, with no vaccines and no cure?’ This has been widely reported as a jibe against the pharma industry and BigPharma in particular. But is Dr. Chan really placing the blame squarely on BigPharma?

The answer is probably ‘no’. Her comment about the pharmaceutical industry came as the second of two arguments the WHO have making for years, but which have fallen on deaf ears.

The first argument Chan claims has fallen on deaf ears is the urgent need for investment in long neglected healthcare systems, claiming that leaders have been right to attribute the outbreaks unprecedented severity to a  ‘failure to put basic public health infrastructures in place.’ The second of these is that R&D incentives are non-existent for neglected tropical diseases such as Ebola, and that profit-driven industries do not ‘invest in products for markets that cannot pay.’

Her first argument is surely aimed at wealthy governments who have failed to aid the improvement of health systems in the poorest countries. When she mentions the lack of R&D incentives big pharmaceutical companies have when it comes to neglected disease, she is criticising governments for not providing sufficient incentives for developers to create vaccines for what has been, until this year, a relatively small.

Her second argument is not that BigPharma need to invest in drug development for risky markets, but that we need to do more to incentivise such development and de-risk their investment. It’s worth noting that Dr. Chan doesn’t actually mention BigPharma specifically, instead referring to the ‘profit-driven- industry.

The New York Times and TIME have both lambasted the pharma industry (specifically BigPharma, but as I mention above there is no clear reason for this) are they forgetting that pharma in the west operates in a free market? Of course they are not going to develop treatments at a cost billions of dollars if they cannot guarantee that someone will be able to buy the end product. As Dr. Chan makes clear, there are no incentives for developers to invest in Ebola treatments. The only reason they are doing so now is not because Westerners are threatened as TIME suggests, but because governments across the world are suitably invested in containing Ebola that they will be willing to pay for any treatments that come to market.

There are plenty of cases of developers being incentivised to develop for markets that will not necessarily be able to afford the product on their own. Rare diseases and the support given to orphan drug developers is one. Advance market commitment, where by the WHO subsidise the purchase of vaccine on a large scale for developing countries. Interestingly advance market commitment covers both products in development as well as those on the market.

The moral of Dr. Chan’s speech is not that BigPharma are greedy capitalists who do not care about the rest of the world. Rather, her concern is that, in a free market, governments are doing little to encourage development of vaccines for diseases that affect a relatively small number. Whilst the number of deaths from Ebola has sky rocketed this year, 5,000 deaths is a fraction of the over half a million deaths a year from malaria, and it shows in the incentives available to develop maria vaccines.

The American and European biotechs and pharma are not spending tens of billions on research on malaria and HIV vaccines because they see a chance to charge high prices to rich Westeners. They are developing treatments because there is enough government support to de-risk investment in products intended for countries who cannot afford the final product.

A paralell may perhaps be drawn here between the lack of government foresight to incentivise Ebola vaccine development, and the poor and sluggish response we initially saw from governments in the developed world.

Find a transcript of Dr. Chan’s speech here.

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