Drugmakers are racing to develop vaccines and drugs to address the worst outbreak of Ebola in history. It’s unclear who will pay for their products, but companies are betting that governments and aid groups will foot the bill.
There are no proven drugs or vaccines for Ebola, in large part because it is so rare that up until now it has been hard to attract research funding. And the West African nations hardest hit by the outbreak are unlikely to be able to afford new Ebola vaccines and drugs.
But governments and corporations are shifting millions of dollars to fight Ebola in response to the outbreak that has infected nearly 10,000 and killed over 4,800. Experts say drugmakers are wagering international groups and wealthier governments like the United States will buy Ebola vaccines and drugs in mass quantities to stockpile them for future use once they’re deemed safe.
‘‘The political bet is that the US and World Health Organization have been so embarrassed and burned by this event that they will be willing to change the way they do business,’’ said professor Lawrence Gostin of the Georgetown University Law School, who studies global health issues.
Drugmakers have benefited from stockpiling before. During the bird flu pandemic of 2009, Western governments spent billions to stock up on drugs and vaccines that mostly went unused. Shelf-life varies by product, but can be as little as a year.
Still, it’s unclear who will pay for the vaccines in development, even after a WHO meeting on Thursday that included government officials, drugmakers, and philanthropic groups.
‘‘Something concrete needs to be developed soon,’’ said Dr. Manica Balasegaram of Doctors Without Borders, who attended the meeting. ‘‘This needs to done in tandem for us to prepare for when these vaccines are deployed in the larger scale beyond clinical trials.’’
Even with the uncertainty, drug companies are rushing to begin testing in patients.
Johnson & Johnson said last week it would test a vaccine combination that could protect against a strain ‘‘highly similar’’ to the virus that triggered this Ebola outbreak.
The New Brunswick, N.J., company is spending up to $200 million to speed up production of the vaccine, which it licensed in part from a Danish company last month. If safety tests are successful, the company hopes to begin large clinical trials in May 2015.
The two leading Ebola vaccines in the pipeline have largely been funded by government efforts, but their testing is being completed by a combination of corporate and public financing.
Human trials of a vaccine co-developed by the US National Institutes of Health and GlaxoSmithKline are being funded by the company, its charitable trust, and funds from the US and UK governments. It is being tested for safety in the United States, United Kingdom, and Mali. GSK said it might be able to make about 1 million doses of its vaccine per month by the end of 2015, assuming that some logistical and regulatory hurdles can be overcome.
A small US drugmaker, NewLink Genetics, holds the license on the second front-runner vaccine, developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and sent to Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland for testing on volunteers, with preliminary safety results expected by December.
Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny from the UN health agency told reporters last week that millions of doses could be available in 2015 in West Africa if early tests proved the two leading experimental vaccines are safe and provoke enough of an immune response to protect people .