The Bigger Problem behind the Ebola Virus

Western Africa is undergoing the worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history. Over 826 individuals have already succumbed to the virus, and many more are expected to do so as the outbreak spreads. However, the most unfortunate part of this fatal disease is that there is currently no approved vaccine available. The World Health Organization has labeled Ebola as a nearly always fatal disease, in which victims must face impaired kidney and liver function along with internal and external bleeding. Sadly, we have not seen a large inflow of money to research a vaccine or treatment purely because fewer deaths have resulted when outbreaks have occurred in the past.

While scientists around the world have studied this virus, no vaccine has ever surpassed the clinical trial stage of research. But the question is why? Capitalism.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not anti-Karl Marx, and while I haven’t tailored my late night reading preferences to The Communist Manifesto, I do understand the benefits of capitalism and how (for the most part) we reap the advantages from having privately owned means of production and industries. That being said though, our entire economic system is primarily based on the idea of operating for profit. It’s all about the bottom line, y’all. And for many companies, if the bottom line isn’t spitting green, then something’s got to give.

Which brings me back to Ebola (figuratively speaking – literally would be all bad). Since the virus has been fairly rare in the past, there is less of an impetus to get a vaccine to market, so to speak. The disease itself is absolutely terrible, but there is also very little money being pushed to fight this deadly virus. Capitalism capitalizes on profit opportunities, and a big sector that functions under capitalism is pharmaceutical companies. Vaccines are typically developed and made available on the market thanks to funding from pharmaceuticals and other private companies. But these corporations will only finance treatments that will actually yield a positive return on investment – hence why the vaccine for the Ebola virus has fallen to the wayside. Which begs the question: what makes a cause, circumstance, or concern actually worthwhile?

Because here’s the thing: are we so intent on making profits that human life becomes secondary? Let’s take a look at the numbers. The top 11 pharmaceutical companies raked in over $711 billion in profits from 2002 to 2012. That’s profits, people – not revenues. How much money does one corporation need to have before they find it in their “hearts” to devote funds to a cause that may not yield as much profit, but is still one that needs to be addressed? Is social entrepreneurship dead along with chivalry and Latin? Companies are all about forecasting – I would know, that’s a big part of my own job. So why can’t these pharmas forecast out a little to understand some of the world’s deadliest diseases need to have effective treatments available? Because clearly Ebola is operating on the premise that past performance is not indicative of future performance.

Pharmaceutical companies simply do not see the value in investing in a vaccine for a virus or disease that is only prevalent in low-income nations, and for only short periods of time. While there is government and university funding available, these funds are nowhere near the amounts that the pharmaceuticals can provide. In terms of how a pharmaceutical would approach this situation, it goes like this: “Whelp, if we invest in this vaccine and it actually works and we make it available in rural countries, those that will need it won’t have access to it and won’t be able to afford it. And if the vaccine ends up not working, we lose our investment. We could spend millions and yet our time and money could be completely ineffective. This is a lose-lose situation – there’s no guarantee of profit whatsoever. Anyway, have we found the next Viagra yet?” Or at least I imagine the reasoning goes something like that.

But the analysis of the pharmaceutical companies fails to take into account the suffering that individuals undergo when they become afflicted with these deadly viruses like Ebola. It fails to take into account not only the gravity of the situation, but the humanity of it as well. And while small companies in America, including NancoViricides and BioCryst are attempting to develop treatments, along with funding from the U.S. Defense Department, those top 11 pharmaceutical companies with the billions upon billions of dollars in profit are nowhere to be seen.

While the experimental drug ZMapp has been used on Kent Brantly (the American doctor that recently contracted the virus as he spent his time treating Ebola patients through Samaritan’s Purse), it has not received approval and has not undergone large-scaling testing. The researchers and doctors are calling for funding because in order to have a vaccine not only function properly, but be available on a global market, it requires financial support. I myself am not sure what will push the big pharmas to participate in funding, but I hope something turns their minds around soon. The CDC has already stated that the number of Ebola victims will continue to rise and has labeled this outbreak as out of control, strongly advising against non-essential travel to West Africa. Sierra Leone has actually declared a state of emergency, and while we have plenty of assurances to believe that there will not be a massive outbreak in the United States, we shouldn’t become complacent with the fact that simply because we were given more fortunate circumstances, we can ignore those that haven’t been granted such a safe environment. While most of us do enjoy living in our bubble, it only takes one small prick to burst it.

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