Drug industry's lack of interest in Ebola

Last updated 05:00 11/08/2014

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OPINION: When a wretched death is the huge likelihood, an uncertain alternative starts looking pretty good.

There are no registered medicines or vaccines against the Ebola virus. So experimental vaccines and medicines suddenly aren't without their appeal for West African nations twisting in fear from the worst outbreak ever recorded.

They can be forgiven if they react with less than equanimity to sage scientific cautions against the impatient use of medicines that, by golly, just haven't been proven safe.

Especially when the treatment tried on two Ebola-infected US aid workers has produced promising results.

Still, there are legitimate tensions here between the humanitarian case to act as swiftly and intelligently as possible, and the recklessness of some sort of what-the-hell, anything's-better-than-this approach.

Medical history is littered with would-be cures and protections that have produced horrid consequences in their own right. And the notion that beggars can't be choosers is misplaced here - it would be possible that sufficiently bad reactions to some of the options to be trialled in Africa might, themselves, be so bad that when truly effective treatment is available, the necessary trust and goodwill to accept them is no longer there.

The drug industry has to date shown less than acute interest in Ebola, but there has been some work and some options do exist. Crucially, though, none of them has been tested on people.

The World Health Organisation needs to figure out the most promising experimental drugs and therapies and set about clinical trials. The trial process cannot be skipped and that, plus the need to build up stocks, will mean delays followed by difficult decisions about who receives the treatment first.

Not good news, on balance, for west African nations. New treatments are unlikely to stampede to the rescue in this particular outbreak. But since it's a virus that spreads through bodily fluids, basic hygiene and quarantine techniques still have crucial roles to play. As Nottingham University molecular virologist Professor Jonathan Ball says, good infection control is what is going to beat this virus.

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- The Southland Times

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