Not enough profit


While the media and politicians are debating whether or not to use an experimental vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus, they are not dealing with the core reason why there is no vaccine now. The reason is simple. Drug manufacturers have less potential to make big profits from the manufacture of an Ebola vaccine. Ebola is a disease of poor people and the numbers are small compared to populations of people acquiring vaccines for influenza and a host of more common diseases.

The Ebola virus was first identified in 1974 in Zaire and there have been outbreaks of different strains since then. Mortality rates have been as high as 88 percent. If such a virus was endemic to the United States or Europe you can bet your 401K that the world would have had a number of vaccines developed by now.

It would also be a safe bet that if Ebola had affected larger populations so that individuals and countries could buy large supplies of a vaccine, there would be a number of vaccines on the market. If there is little or no profit to be made, drug companies have little interest in developing new drugs.

This is yet another reason why a market-forces-driven health care system does not meet the life and death needs of people when their needs are the greatest. According to a posting on the Think Progress web site, as well as other sources, "Pharmaceutical companies often claim their huge profits are necessary because that money goes toward innovative drug research and development. But one recent study found that drug companies actually spend 19 times more on advertising their products than they do on investing resources to develop new ones. And some areas of scientific research, like the development of new vaccines to replace some old antibiotics that have become increasingly less effective over time, have largely stalled because Big Pharma isn't as willing to invest money in less-profitable ventures."

While it would never be possible to move the entire drug manufacturing world over to the public sector, there are some types of drugs that the government should have more responsibility for developing and distributing. The money is there. Drug company profits reach as high as 30 percent, according to recent reports. Most businesses would be ecstatic with profit margins of 10 percent.

Just chopping off a few percentage points of profit might provide the potential to keep more poor people alive.

Many of the new drugs that come onto the market at unaffordable prices for too many people were first developed by government entities such as the National Institutes of Health. Americans don't realize that their tax dollars are being used to subsidize the work of for-profit drug companies that take the government research and then move a drug onto the open market so they can make sure their company CEO's can maintain their opulent lifestyles.

It would not hurt drug company profits very much if they were required to subsidize the government so that drugs for uncommon diseases that affect small numbers of people could be developed in a timely manner.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works all over the world, as do many other global organizations, to provide support to countries where deadly disease outbreaks occur. Imagine what would happen if an arm of the National Institutes of Health or the CDC could respond to emerging diseases and develop vaccines and other medications in a timely manner instead of waiting for drug companies to make sure they can profit before they work on a cure.

Political rhetoric is too little too late for the more than 900 confirmed deaths from Ebola in West Africa. When we hear such talk we should be outraged and realize the need for profits are really at the root of the problem.

It was noted in a recent CNN report that "The United States is planning to send 50 health experts to West Africa to help contain the outbreak, which President Obama addressed in remarks Wednesday, saying citizens of the affected countries are in Americans' thoughts and prayers. "What we have done is to make sure we're surging not just U.S. resources, but we have reached out to European partners and partners from other countries working with the WHO," Obama said. "Let's get all the health workers that we need on the ground. Let's help to bolster the systems that they already have in place."

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at


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