My Take

Time to spend money on an Ebola vaccine

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 4:42am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 5:03am

One suspected Ebola case in Hong Kong turned out to be a false alarm. But officials say they will still be on high alert. Such prudent steps are needed as thousands of passengers pass through Hong Kong and an outbreak of any disease anywhere can easily reach our shores.

There is no cure in sight yet and Ebola is most contagious during the terminal stages. Even the disposal of victims' bodies has to be done carefully. Despite having all the required protection, medical professionals have contracted the virus. Some relatives who do not want their loved ones to die in isolation want to take the victims away from hospitals.

Ebola first emerged in 1976 and given its high fatality rate, the virus should have been a prime target for medical research. But that hasn't happened.

Over the years researchers came up with four or five projects that showed an effective vaccine may be possible. But all of them were hampered by a lack of funds as drug manufacturers were not willing to open their pockets as there wasn't much profit in such ventures. Areas like obesity and erectile dysfunction are much more lucrative.

In the present set-up, it is difficult for the companies to justify spending millions on a project which does not promise good returns. They are answerable to shareholders for whom the bottom line is paramount.

So far, most research has been done by state-funded bodies and some universities. Finding the money to hold costly and time-consuming human trials is difficult for them. Now the US authorities say emergency talks are being held with those involved and a vaccine may be ready by next year. Till then all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope this outbreak can be contained.

This is a wake-up call for bodies like the World Health Organisation to create a sizeable fund and actively encourage research into such diseases. Making such a fund available to organisations which work without a profit motive may make us more prepared to face such situations in future.

After all governments coughed up billions to save banks that were "too big to fail". Surely they can find enough funds to boost efforts that would actually save lives.

Alex Lo is on leave