Big Pharma’s greed has delayed the development of an Ebola vaccine, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan recently told an audience at a conference in the West African country of Benin.
Since Guinea reported its first Ebola case in February, more than 13,000 people — most of whom live in West Africa — have been infected. Out of that group, nearly 5,000 have succumbed to the disease, according to WHO. Nearly 10 vaccines are currently in the testing stages with human testing already underway.
Chan, however, said that the industry’s pursuit of high profits will undermine efforts to get the vaccine in as many hands as possible. She may have some cause for concern. Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, a company based in Canada, saw its price share increase by 180 percent when news of its work on a vaccine broke in July.
“A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay,” Chan said, according to The New York Times. “WHO has been trying to make this issue visible for ages. Now people can see for themselves.”
There’s some truth to Chan’s statement. In the decades since the discovery of Ebola, many Western pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to pursue a vaccine, in part because the virus’ threat didn’t go beyond Central Africa. Now that the disease has reached epidemic levels, several companies are scrambling to find a solution, especially in the months since American and European health care workers have been infected.
But even if the recent attention to Ebola results in a new treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Big Pharma will ensure the final product reaches the masses. While vaccines for other diseases have shown the potential to cut mortality rates by 44 percent, the price controlling instituted by private pharmaceutical companies have made it them hard to come by in many underdeveloped countries.
According to the Public Library of Science, for example, prices for vaccine packages that treat nearly a dozen diseases increased by more than 2700 percent between 2001 and 2011. In that period of time, vaccines against diarrhea and meningitis accounted for nearly 70 percent of the costs. Listings published by the UNICEF Supply Division also highlighted disparities in the prices of medication issued by American and Indian pharmaceutical companies. Those prices haven’t budged, even as new drugs entered the market.
Experts say that in determining the price of drugs, pharmaceutical companies rarely take into consideration the cost of production. Instead, they adjust the price to what they think their largest customers — national governments and global health organizations — will pay for it, especially since it’s usually the only product of its kind on the market. This holds especially true in countries where the government takes on a majority of health care costs for low-income residents.
Big Pharma’s greed poses serious health risks for people across the world. A recent UNICEF report found that nearly 17,000 children worldwide die every day from a host of preventable causes, including pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria — ailments for which medicine costs less than two dollars. In some parts of the world, measles and polio still pose a threat to children, especially those living in conflict zones where contact with the outside world happens much less often.
Even patients in the United States, a country with a relatively better health infrastructure, feel the brunt of high drug prices. A recent Commonwealth Fund survey showed that price of medication discouraged 40 percent of Americans from filling out prescriptions for their ailments. Earlier this year, many low-income Americans inflicted by Hepatitis C — many of whom are veterans, prisoners, uninsured, or covered through Medicaid — were surprised to learn that the innovative drug Solvadi would cost nearly $1,000 a pill, a reality that could threaten their livelihood.
An affordable vaccine could make a big difference at this critical juncture in the fight against Ebola. The disease’s rate of infection has slowed down in some parts of West Africa in recent weeks and world leaders have increasingly contributed financial, medical, and human resources to stomp out the disease at its epicenter. Failing to help the millions of West Africans affected by the disease could set the region’s economy back years and destroy any potential to improve its health care systems so they can tackle future public health issues.
Chan has repeatedly spoken out against the global inequalities that have allowed Ebola to spread so rapidly throughout the affected countries. Last month, she pointed out that the Ebola epidemic highlights the fact that “the rich get the best care; the poor are left to die.”