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From L to R, Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Luciana Borio, assistant commissioner for counterterrorism policy at the Food and Drug Administration, and John Wagner, acting assistant commissioner in Customs and Border Protection's Office of Field Operations, testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on 'Examining the US Public Health Response to the Ebola Outbreak' on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC on October 16, 2014.  - 

For five years, John Eldridge and his team at Profectus Bioscience have developed and tested their Ebola vaccine. First it was on guinea pigs, then monkeys. 

At that point, Eldridge realized monkeys weren't getting sick.

“When I saw those results, I realized that we had a real vaccine candidate which had the potential to make a real difference for mankind,” he says.

But before it can go to market, the vaccine must be tested on humans, a timely and expensive proposition for tiny start-ups like Profectus. And this is where things get tricky. Despite this year’s outbreak, there is virtually no commercial market for Eldridge’s vaccine. In other words, it’s financially difficult for a drug maker of any size to justify the expense of development and production with little payout in return.

That’s why the little agency no one has ever heard of  – the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) – is so important.

“They are investing in things that would die if they didn’t have additional funding,” says Boston University’s Kevin Outterson

Outterson says getting any product from the lab to the market is called "crossing the valley of death." For products like Eldridge’s, which has little financial appeal but huge public health upside, that valley is deeper and longer.

“You can think of BARDA almost like a venture capital firm buried in the U.S. government,” he says.

To find an Ebola treatment, BARDA is investing in the most promising drugs and vaccines. That money, about $30 million just for vaccines so far, changes the equation so it makes better business sense for companies big and small to bring drugs to market. Unlike venture capitalists, BARDA won’t take a cut; in fact, more money may be on the way, with the President expected to seek additional funding from Congress.

“When we decided to put our pedal to the metal, everybody could accelerate and get to a finish line we are aiming for,” says Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, who oversees BARDA.

She says vaccine development would usually take up to 10 years. “We are moving forward in unprecedented speed.”

With this Ebola crisis, Lurie says Washington and industry are hand-in-glove. Lurie’s hoping to avoid mistakes from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, when nearly 61 million Americans got sick and the virus killed more than 12,000  all while the government, working with drug makers, couldn’t get enough flu vaccine manufactured.

“We learned that we needed much stronger relationships with our industry partners,” says Lurie.

She sees signs of a massive Ebola manufacturing mobilization, from giants like GlaxoSmithKline to the little guys like Profectus and John Eldridge, who says he’s actually been given enough money to do the work this time.

“We negotiated the contract. They came to us multiple times and said, ‘we need to supply you with adequate funding that you can move as rapidly as possible,’” he says.

Eldridge still doesn’t know if his vaccine works. But thanks to the tiny office no one has ever heard of, there’s a chance.

Follow Dan Gorenstein at @dmgorenstein