On Real Time, last night, Bill Maher suggested the reason we don’t have an Ebola vaccine is because pharma companies can’t make money. The real reasons have far more to do with science and less to do with making money.
So why aren’t there more specific treatments for Ebola? According to Live Science part of the reason is that Ebola is caused by a virus, rather than bacteria, and researchers in general have had a harder time developing treatments for viral diseases, compared with bacterial diseases, said Derek Gatherer, a bioinformatics researcher at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom who studies virus genetics and evolution. “Antiviral therapy has lagged behind antibacterial therapy for decades,” Gatherer said.
That’s because viruses are small molecules that produce only a handful of proteins, so there are fewer “targets” for treatment, Gatherer said. For this same reason, it has been hard to develop a vaccine against Ebola; a person’s immune system (which is primed by vaccines) has a small target, Gatherer said.
Ebola viruses also evolve quite quickly, so it’s not clear whether a vaccine developed today would protect against future outbreaks, he said. (Ebola viruses belong to a family of viruses called Filoviridae, and there are five known species of Ebola virus.)
And because the virus is so dangerous — in some outbreaks, the mortality rate has been as high as 90 percent — researchers must work with the virus in special facilities with high-level safety precautions, which limits the number of experiments that can be done.
“There’s only a handful of places in the world where you can actually do Ebola experimentation,” Gatherer said. Ebola viruses require a “biosafety level 4″ laboratory — the highest level of protection.
The current Ebola outbreak is the worst in history—already, it’s claimed more lives than every previous outbreak combined. The WHO hopes to have worldwide transmission under control within the next six to nine months. That’s a long time.
But even in light of all those scary numbers, Ebola is still an exceedingly rare disease. Since its discovery, the virus has claimed around 3,500 lives. In the field of communicable diseases, that’s an exceedingly small number, and it’s meant that, prior to this most recent outbreak, there simply weren’t a lot of human Ebola patients for doctors and scientists to study.