“No,” says one expert—the numbers just don’t add up.
As the Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues to spread—it began in March in Guinea and has since spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia—talk of the need for a vaccine to inoculate people against the disease has risen in volume. The Ebola virus is amongst the most deadly known to man, killing some 90 percent of the people afflicted, but, according to Dr. Hildegund Ertl, M.D. at The Wistar Institute’s Vaccine Center who herself is currently working on a rabies vaccine, it’s highly unlikely that an ebola vaccine could or would be ready in time to help with this outbreak.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly difficult virus,” Dr. Ertl responded when asked why we don’t yet have a vaccine for Ebola. “It’s a question of, there aren’t enough cases. In order for biopharma to actually make a vaccine, they need to have the guarantee that the product will be sold, and that they, in the end, sell enough to offset the cost of development. Ebola comes around every three to four years—sometimes we have 50 cases, this time we have over 1,000—but it’s sporatic and the numbers are low. So it’s simply not worthwhile for pharma to develop a vaccine. Making a vaccine costs millions and millions of dollars.”
Despite the sheer ferocity of this Ebola outbreak, Dr. Ertl doubts it will expedite the development of the kind of medical infrastructure necessary to combat complex, fast-moving diseases like Ebola in Africa. Though, she concedes, that if the outbreak turns into a major epidemic, something more than just containing patients and waiting for the disease to run out of new bodies to infect will need to be done.