WHO slams pharma for failing to invest in 'non-profitable' Ebola R&D

By Dan Stanton

- Last updated on GMT

WHO accuses pharma of ignoring diseases prevalent in poorer nations, such as Ebola
WHO accuses pharma of ignoring diseases prevalent in poorer nations, such as Ebola

Related tags Ebola Disease

The WHO has accused biopharma firms of failing to invest in R&D to tackle Ebola due to the disease’s prevalence in poor African nations, as the death toll surpasses 4,000.

“Unquestionably the most severe acute public health emergency in modern times,”​ was how Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), described the current outbreak in West Africa yesterday.

Her words came as part of a keynote address to the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific in Manila, Philippines, and as the number of deaths from Ebola surpasses the 4,000 mark​ she highlighted some of the failings that have helped create this situation “which has moved from a public health crisis to threaten international peace and security.”

While rumours and panic are spreading faster than the virus, and issues with social inequality and frail healthcare systems are fueling the fire, Chan took the opportunity to directly blame the biopharma industry.

“Ebola emerged nearly 40 years ago. Why are clinicians still empty-handed, with no vaccines and no cure?”​ she asked. “Because Ebola has been, historically, geographically confined to poor African nations.”

She continued: “The R&D incentive is virtually non-existent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.”

The first death from Ebola in the US​ was confirmed last week, but

Pharma has begun responding to this crisis,​ with multiple companies upping efforts to bring antibodies and other vaccines to human trials, though nothing is expected to materialise until 2015. Mapp Biopharmaceuticals is developing an antibody cocktail (ZMapp), while Sarepta Therapeutics and Tekmira Pharmaceuticals are both independently working on RNAi therapeutics.

As for Big Pharma, GlaxoSmithKline is leading the way with its Ebola vaccine​. The firm has announced it is using a human cell line in 200L wave bags to manufacture 10,000 doses within two months. However, the drug only entered a Phase I study last month and scaling-up manufacture would take upwards of nine months.

FDA Warning Letter

With no approved drug, some companies are looking to capitalise on the public’s panic surrounding Ebola. One firm, Natural Solutions Foundation, was hit with a Warning letter from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after claiming several of its products offers protection against the lethal disease.

Among the loose claims Natural Solutions Foundation made, it said its nutrient substance ‘Nano Silver’ “is the world's only hope against Ebola,” ​while further boasting that “every disease causing organism against which it has been tested, all around the world has been killed (bacteria, parasites) or inactivated (viruses) by this amazing solution.”

As the FDA reminded the firm in the letter​, “it is unlawful under the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 41 et seq., to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled  human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made.”

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