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From The Socialist newspaper, 5 November 2014

Ebola virus crisis - no profit, no vaccine

Andy Ford, Unite union health sector

In November 2010 the medical journal The Lancet ran a seminar on Ebola saying: "Previously, the usefulness of an Ebola virus vaccine was disputed, because of the disease's rarity, little interest by industry, and the potential cost. Frequent outbreaks in the past decade, several imported cases of viral haemorrhagic fever and laboratory exposures, and the potential misuse of Ebola virus as a biothreat agent has changed that view."

So, because of the "potential cost" and lack of interest by Big Pharma, nothing more was done. An Ebola vaccine was eventually started only a few weeks ago and it is hoped to have 10,000 doses ready for December this year. Initial results look promising.

Even more astonishing than the four year delay is the fact that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and drug giant GSK jointly decided in March, as the current outbreak began, not to proceed with production of an Ebola vaccine because the existing counter measures were sufficient, and "No-one anticipated that we would need a vaccine" (Pharma Times, Oct 17th, 2014).

Of course each now blames the other, but that decision must rank as one of the most misguided in recent history.

We can only imagine the difference 10,000 doses of vaccine started in March would have made. For the want of timely production of a vaccine hundreds of dedicated health workers in West Africa have lost their lives, and there is the threat of over a million cases by the New Year.

WHO seems to have been functioning on auto-pilot at best during this crisis. Or perhaps acting more as a meetings, banqueting and foreign trips organisation which did some healthcare on the side; while the big drugs companies hung back until a profitable return was assured.

Nationalise

The people who are paying the price for this criminal complacency are the workers and poor farmers of West Africa, and most particularly and needlessly, the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

As socialists we call for the nationalisation of the drugs and pharmaceutical companies, under democratic workers' control, so that drugs and vaccines are developed on the basis of need not profit; for complete re-organisation of the WHO; and for an urgent programme of state-funded research into treatments and vaccines for Ebola to get this outbreak under control.


Failure of profit-driven 'free market'

Ten years ago the Public Health Agency of Canada patented a vaccine that prevents Ebola in monkeys. Unfortunately, the Canadian government handed over this vaccine to the private sector - for a pittance.

In 2010 it licensed the Ebola vaccine to a small US firm called NewLink Genetics. The profit-maximising calculations of NewLink's executives meant that the promising vaccine sat on the shelf for years with no human trials until this year's outbreak.


We need a working class response

The news media keep saying how help is desperately needed to combat the Ebola virus: from the World Health Organisation to Barack Obama, David Cameron and the President of Liberia. But I haven't heard anything specific being asked for - just 'more action' and 'more coordination'.

This sense of powerlessness can lead to the attitude of 'let's batten down the hatches at home.' This is reinforced by David Cameron's emphasis on introducing screening at some airports and a national exercise to test the UK's response to Ebola.

As socialists we know that this is not the answer. The best people to provide a solution are the organised working class in countries directly affected and most at risk, in particular health and community workers, some of whom have been on strike because they have not been paid and don't have the resources to do the job.

Britain's health unions need to support those affected health unions to draw up a programme of what exactly is needed and from whom - including the necessary drugs and resources and adequate pay and training and resources to protect all medical workers involved (local, international, volunteers, armed forces).

Then they need to launch a mass campaign nationally and internationally to demand the programme is met without cuts to any other public services and benefits and (legitimate) development aid anywhere.

Cathy Meadows, Nottingham

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In The Socialist 5 November 2014:


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