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  • Brendan Shaw

Biopharmaceutical industry comes through in dealing with Ebola

Recent news that two new drugs to treat the Ebola virus developed by the biopharmaceutical industry have achieved a 90% cure rate is welcome news.

Breakthrough technology

The two newest drugs that were undergoing clinical trial were so successful, that the trial’s independent monitoring committee recommended the trial be cancelled early and all patients in the trial switched over to the new medicines.

These treatments developed by Regeneron and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, in partnership with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and the National Institutes of Health in the US respectively, have proven so effective that scientists are now saying that Ebola should quickly transition from a virulent killer to a curable disease.

This is fantastic news.

Ebola is a horrible disease.

It is a viral disease that rapidly destroys internal organs and is transmitted through human-to-human contact through bodily fluids.

It has an average fatality rate of 50%, meaning that, on average, half of all people who get Ebola die from it.

But in past outbreaks the fatality rate has varied from 25% up to 90%.

First discovered in 1976, the largest outbreak occurred through 2014 and 2015 with a total of almost 30,000 cases and killing over 11,000 people – mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

There is currently an ongoing outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo amid a civil war which has already claimed 1,700 lives and an additional 2,500 infections.

It is during this most recent outbreak that four medicines were trialled, including the two with the 90% survival rate.

These medicines come on top of the other great news from earlier this year that there are now several vaccines available to vaccinate people against Ebola with essentially a 100% protection rate.

Again, the pharmaceutical industry, including companies like Merck Sharpe & Dohme and Johnson & Johnson, had a major hand in the development of these vaccines.

And there’s news of at least a third vaccine being developed in a partnership between GSK and the Sabin Institute.

The fact that we now have four treatments and at least two vaccines to prevent it is testament to the success from collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry, research agencies, governments and NGOs.

We’ve come a long way in five years

Five years ago there were no effective vaccines or medicines to treat Ebola.

I started work in Geneva for the international pharmaceutical industry in 2014 at the height of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak.

The World Health Organization at the time was under immense criticism for not responding quick enough to the outbreak.

At the time groups like Medicines Sans Frontiers were amongst the first to sound the alarm about the emerging Ebola outbreak and criticised the WHO for its failure to respond quick enough.

MSF and others also criticised the pharmaceutical industry for, what they argued, was the industry’s tardiness and lack of interest in developing vaccines and medicines for Ebola.

It wasn’t unusual for industry representatives to be yelled at and humiliated in open forums in Geneva by such activist groups over what was supposed to be the industry’s reluctance to develop treatments for Ebola.

This open criticism is still happening today at global health events.

But, as is often the case, it's not as simple as blaming pharmaceutical companies for all the problems.

The fact is that the pharmaceutical industry, through all the noise over the last five years, has now developed at least two effective vaccines with an almost 100% protection rate together with now four medicines to treat the Ebola virus.

This is testament to the importance of the biopharmaceutical industry in global health.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on this.

Five years on from when the industry was being accused of being heartless and morally bankrupt, we now have two 100% effective vaccines and four medicines to treat the infection with a survival rate of up to 90%.

One could argue that’s a pretty good effort considering that five years ago pharmaceutical companies were being advised directly by WHO officials that the Ebola virus was not a priority.

Officials were also publicly saying the virus was under control.

While some might argue that pharmaceutical companies should go out on their own and determine what the world's important research priorities should be, when the WHO tells pharmaceutical companies that Ebola isn’t a priority, those companies are likely to take that advice into consideration when deciding where to allocate their precious research dollars in drug development.

A problem for the industry critics

News of these technological breakthroughs should also give pause for thought for those who have virulently attacked the industry for its response to outbreaks of Ebola in the last few years.

More than one activist may have to revise their key talking points now that the pharmaceutical industry has come through with the goods in record time.

It’s biopharmaceutical companies that have made the vaccines and medicines to treat Ebola possible.

It’s a good thing that companies like these are profitable in other areas so they are able to invest in developing new medicines and vaccines for things like Ebola.

More to be done

This is not to say that the issue is solved.

It is difficult for companies to develop vaccines for relatively rare diseases like Ebola because of things like the costs of development.

Companies do sometimes find it difficult to develop such medicines themselves, which is why partnering with other sectors becomes so important.

In years gone by, insufficient strategy, commitment and cooperation from international organisations, governments and the biopharmaceutical industry has been a barrier to the development of treatments and vaccines.

But the last five years are an example of how important biopharmaceutical companies are to global health and how they can be leveraged to help global health if they can be positioned properly in a broader strategy.

In the case of Ebola, today the technologies, the vaccines and the medicines are there.

It’s no longer science fiction.

The challenge now will be to ensure that everyone in the affected countries who needs them will get them.

That's something everyone will have to work on together.

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