Ebola and the pharma R&D boom
Health workers are fighting tirelessly to control the spread of the disease and care for those who have contracted it, while in the United States and Europe pharmaceutical firms are embroiled in their own battle - to produce safe and effective vaccines and treatments for this killer illness.
Indeed, the current Ebola outbreak has triggered a surge in research and development (R&D) activity in the global pharmaceutical industry, and it has raised questions over why, almost 40 years on from the first epidemic, there is still no vaccine and no cure.
What is happening?
Due to the severity of this latest outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has ordered an acceleration of the normal drug development process in the hope that Ebola treatments can be tested, manufactured and used as soon as possible.
Under normal circumstances it can take up to 15 years for a drug to go through clinical trials and reach the licensing stage, but health crises like this one demand a much faster response. That's why scientists are currently looking into several unlicensed and experimental treatments, both vaccines to protect healthy people from contracting Ebola, and cures for those infected.
One that is showing particular promise is a vaccine called ChAd3 that has been produced by Britain's GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and America's National Institutes of Health. Trials in primates infected with Ebola showed that the drug successfully protected all of the animals.
Tests are now beginning on healthy volunteers in the UK and West Africa, and at the same time GSK will be making up to 10,000 doses of the vaccine to be given to health workers in countries affected by the outbreak if the human trials are successful.
Of course there are other drugs under development, including ZMapp, which was successfully used to treat a British man who contracted Ebola while working as a volunteer nurse in Sierra Leone, as well as two American doctors, despite never having been tested on humans.
It is a serum produced by US company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, which claims stocks of the drug have now run out. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the firm does not have the capacity to make large quantities of the treatment.
Why now? Why not decades ago?
It has been suggested that the reason why Ebola vaccines and cures have not been high on the R&D agenda for pharmaceutical companies up until now is because there has been no business case to produce them. Simply put, Ebola does not affect enough people globally.
"The problem is, even if you've got a way of making a vaccine, unless there's a big market, it's not worth the while of a mega company," explained Professor Adrian Hill of Oxford University during an interview with the Independent.
Pharmaceutical companies are businesses, and the nature of business is to remain profitable. It makes much more commercial sense to develop drugs to treat diseases such as cancer and conditions like diabetes and dementia.
Unfortunately this raises the very big question of ethics, and because this is the biggest outbreak yet it has attracted a huge amount of media attention around the world. The WHO claims the reported number of deaths "vastly underestimates" the size of the problem.
So there will be huge reputational benefits for the pharmaceutical companies that are able to bring the first Ebola cure or preventative vaccine to the masses. But there is something else propelling the R&D boom we are seeing, and that is public funding.
The human trials of the GSK vaccine and the production of 10,000 doses are being accelerated thanks to funding from the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the UK Department for International Development, while Mapp Pharmaceutical is developing is Ebola serum with financial support from the US government and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Could state funding into R&D be the answer?
Vox Media has published figures compiled by the Burrill Report which reveal that only a tiny fraction of global pharmaceutical R&D spending is dedicated to fighting so-called neglected diseases like Ebola and dengue fever.
Yet, according to the Huffington Post, WHO figures show that more than a sixth of the world's population suffer from one or more neglected diseases, predominantly in the poorest countries.
So how do we make sure that the pharmaceutical industry is able to produce treatments for these illnesses without losing money in the process? After all, they are businesses, not charitable foundations. Well, some believe that state funding is the way forward.
It is thought that the only way to make sure that the kind of diseases that affect the developing world are given the R&D attention they need is for governments to work with the pharmaceutical companies and to offer ongoing financial support.
James Love, director of the not-for-profit organisation Knowledge Ecology International, told the Huffington Post that it would require collaboration and funding from several developed nations.
"Instead of sitting about and waiting for the Department of Defence in the United States or Bill Gates, there needs to be some kind of multilateral agreement where countries agree to finance R&D into these things," he stated. "It's too extensive for one country, but collectively countries can all pitch in and make it happen."
There is also the suggestion that pharmaceutical firms could take a collaborative approach to R&D into neglected diseases and share information on clinical trials and early stage research instead of keeping their discoveries a closely-guarded secret.
Dalvir Gill, chief executive of TransCelerate, told CNBC: "It's no longer a sustainable system whereby the amount of money spent is in sums that we can hardly imagine, just to get one drug to the point where it can go to market."
Whatever happens, it is clear that the Ebola crisis has cast a spotlight on pharmaceutical R&D, and the challenge for both the industry and the international community will be to find a way forward that successfully meets demand for neglected disease research in a way that makes business sense for the companies involved.