A global heath expert has cast doubt over frantic attempts to produce a vaccine to combat Ebola.
Anne Roemer-Mahler, from the University of Sussex's Centre for Global Health Policy, claims even if a safe vaccine is found, question marks remain over its funding.
A vaccine produced by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) was tested on healthcare workers in Mali last week. It will be rolled out to dozens more over the coming weeks as authorities scramble to find a way of slowing the virus, which has so far killed nearly 4,500 people.
But Dr Roemer-Mahler said: “It’s one thing to establish this vaccine is safe – but how is it going to be produced? Who’s going to fund its production and who’s going to pay for it for the people of West Africa?”
She added most major pharmaceutical firms concentrated on cardiovascular diseases and cancers because they have ‘much more return on investment than things like Ebola’.
Her views chime with those of Sridhar Venkatapuram, a health justice expert, who told euronews major drugs firms see Ebola as an issue for ‘poor people in poor countries’.
“I wouldn’t say the market is working for Ebola,” said Dr Roemer-Mahler, as she called for more public money to be invested. “Small pharmaceutical firms like biotechs are good at doing the initial research but are too small to do the high-scale trials and manufacturing. At this stage you need very big money and large capacity and that capacity is only in the big pharmaceutical players.
“There’s something fundamentally not working in pharmaceutical production – society and governments have delegated the responsibility to the private-for-profit sector.
“Ebola throws light on this fundamental problem and I hope this current scare might fuel or build momentum to thinking about reforming the sector.”
The testing of a Ebola vaccine in Mali is being carried out by the Centre for Vaccine Development (CVD) at the University of Maryland.
Myron Levine, director of CVD, told Reuters: “This research will give us crucial information about whether the vaccine is safe, well-tolerated and capable of stimulating adequate immune responses in the highest priority target population.
“If it works, in the foreseeable future it could help alter the dynamic of this epidemic by interrupting transmission to healthcare and other exposed front-line workers.”
Further similar early trials are scheduled to be held in Gambia.
The World Health Organisation says, if the trials prove successful, small-scale use of the GSK vaccine will begin.
In the meantime medical experts say the best chances of slowing the disease’s spread is to open more treatment centres and ensure the dead are buried properly so they do not infect others.
GSK says it is “working with other partners and stakeholder to accelerate the development of manufacturing at an industrial scale” so that if the trials are successful they will be in a position to “significantly ramp up production to help WHO combat this epidemic and prevent future ones”.
The trials are being held in Mali – which has not had any Ebola cases but borders Guinea, where the outbreak began – to find out if the potential vaccine is safe.