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The Ebola Virus

Ebola’s an absolutely hideous disease.

Look, Ebola’s an absolutely hideous disease, it’s what we call a hemorrhagic fever.  It’s caused by a filovirus.  It’s like a…sort of like long strings when you look at it down an electron microscope.  It’s, fortunately, rather sensitive to environmental degradation.  So it doesn’t survive for a long time on tabletops or door handles or that sort of thing, but it’s a horrible infection that breaks down the vasculature. And the combination of the virus growth, and aspects of the host response, we think, cause enormous loss of fluid and that’s why people die.  And when they’re very sick the fluid contains an enormous amount of virus and it’s very infectious and so coming in contact with those people when they’re sick is extremely dangerous.

As far as we know, it doesn’t spread at all like influenza, which is very infectious as a respiratory droplet.  There’s no doubt that you could be infected by aerosols if such were created, but we try to avoid that in handling the patients.  The real tragedy with ebola is we underestimated it.  I think if we’d gone after it in a serious way, and there’d been an economic way of doing it, we could’ve had a vaccine ready and we could’ve had antiviral drugs ready, but we thought we’d handle it by barrier nursing and proper quarantine and all the rest, and as you know it just got away in West Africa and that didn’t work.

I’ve just read in the newspapers that the Canadians are sending out 800 doses of a vaccine for trial.  I know the Americans had a vaccine under development and were publishing on it as early as 2004.  I was on the committee of the Vaccine Research Centre in Bethesda at that stage and Gary Nabel had a vaccine that was well under development and I think, from what I saw of the publication, there’s a 2010 vaccine which could’ve really gone forward.  The problem is that while you can develop drugs and vaccines in academic institutions, with relatively small amounts of money coming from, say, federal research grants, then the task of taking those forward to an actual product and getting it to the stage where you can make a lot of it requires industry involvement.  And that’s very expensive, especially the safety testing.  It can cost up to a billion dollars.  There’s a bit of a write off of other costs in that but it’s still very expensive.  And so we can’t expect industry to do that for something that has no real market.  I mean, they have to operate within the rules of capitalism, if you like.  And so we actually need public funding, or philanthropy funding, to enable that to go forward.  And we need a better model for this.

At the moment it all falls on countries like the United States, to a lesser extent Canada, even Australia, the UK.  The wealth distribution in the world has changed enormously and we need other countries who have great wealth to come into this equation.  We need a global fund, I think.