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Ebola cure delayed by drug industry’s drive for profit, WHO leader says

Margaret Chan, the World Health Organization’s director general, criticized the drug industry for greed and neglect.
Margaret Chan, the World Health Organization’s director general, criticized the drug industry for greed and neglect.Adel Ben Salah/File 2014

NEW YORK — The leader of the World Health Organization criticized the drug industry Monday, saying that the drive for profit was one reason no vaccine had yet been found for Ebola.

In a speech at a regional conference in Cotonou, Benin, Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the organization, also decried the glaring absence of effective public health systems in the worst-affected countries.

At least 13,567 people are known to have contracted the Ebola virus in the latest outbreak, and 4,951 have died, according to data on the WHO website, which was updated Friday. All but a few of the cases have been in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

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Health officials in Sierra Leone said Monday that a doctor there had died of Ebola, the fifth local doctor in the West African nation to die of the disease. The death of Dr. Godfrey George, medical superintendent of Kambia Government Hospital, was a setback in efforts to keep the country’s health care workers safe.

Chan said WHO has long warned of the consequences of greed in drug development and of neglect in public health.

In the midst of the Ebola crisis, she said, these “two WHO arguments that have fallen on deaf ears for decades are now out there with consequences that all the world can see, every day, on prime-time TV news.”

The Ebola virus was discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire, in 1976. But because it was confined to impoverished African countries, Chan said, there was no incentive to develop a vaccine until this year, when Ebola became a broader threat.

“A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay,” she said. “WHO has been trying to make this issue visible for ages. Now people can see for themselves.”

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Chan reiterated her contention that the Ebola crisis “is the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times.”

Efforts to find a vaccine have intensified as the disease has spread, with a small outbreak in Nigeria and isolated cases in Mali, Senegal, Spain, and the United States. At an emergency meeting in September, the UN Security Council declared the Ebola crisis a threat to international security.

Officials at WHO and at other public health authorities reported on Oct. 24 that they hoped to begin trials of vaccines as early as December and that it should be known by April whether they are effective.

Researchers have been testing two experimental vaccines in healthy volunteers in the United States and in other countries outside the main outbreak region in West Africa. One has been developed by the National Institutes of Health and GlaxoSmithKline and the other by the Canadian government and NewLink Genetics.

Testing on humans of at least five other vaccines could begin in early 2015, WHO officials have said.

Doctors, nurses, and other health workers have been especially susceptible to infection because of the way the disease spreads through contact with fluids.