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Ebola Vaccine Might Be Coming, But Where's It Been?

Health officials are working to fast-track a vaccine — the West-African Ebola outbreak has killed more than 700. But why didn't we already have one?
Posted at 9:18 AM, Aug 01, 2014

As the deadly West-African Ebola outbreak continues to spread, health officials are working to fast-track an Ebola vaccine. (European Commission DG ECHO / CC BY ND 2.0)

According to The Washington Post, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is in talks with the Food and Drug Administration to begin Phase I human testing of an Ebola vaccine in September. If the trial is completed by January and the vaccine appears to be working, "researchers could conduct more robust human trials later in 2015."

And while it gives the impression fast-tracking a trial would only serve to launch more trials, USA Today reports there's a far more helpful result.

If the drug is proven to be safe and effective, "it could be given to health workers in affected African countries sometime in 2015 ... on an emergency basis."

NBC explains patients infected with Ebola currently receive only immune system support — saline to replace fluid, painkillers for fever, and antibiotics for "secondary infections." (European Commission DG ECHO / CC BY ND 2.0)

Ebola has a 90 percent fatality rate. With the death toll climbing, many are asking why we haven't already created a vaccine for Ebola. It seems to be a simple — if disappointing — answer: money. 

Vox reports there are actually a few Ebola vaccines that have shown promise in "non-human primates." But because there's no market for a drug that "surfaces sporadically in low-income, African countries," pharmaceutical companies don't want to provide funding for research and development. 

Vox spoke with one researcher who said current funding for a vaccine comes almost exclusively from the National Institutes of Health, and it only comes because of a concern over the Ebola virus being weaponized. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

In other words, the researcher believes if a bioterrorism concern didn't exist, funding for a vaccine probably wouldn't either. 

ABC points to another barrier for Ebola vaccine research. Because outbreaks are generally sporadic in nature, researchers are unable to conduct successful field studies. Compared to HIV or malaria, Ebola is far more unpredictable. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1976 the second-largest Ebola outbreak infected 318 and killed 280. Since then, only two other outbreaks resulted in more than 200 deaths — until this year. 

With more than 1,000 infected in a few months, health officials hope pharmaceutical companies will find monetary motivation in an Ebola vaccine.