Johnson & Johnson is the latest pharmaceutical firm to say it will join the race to find a vaccine for Ebola. The firm has even been talking with rival GlaxoSmithKline about ways to collaborate to speed up development.
That urgency speaks to the idea that while the epidemic is well under control in the U.S., it’s out of control in West Africa, where the World Health Organization reports nearly 1,000 people have been infected in just the past week.
“What you are seeing is a collaboration among industry, a collaboration with governments, a collaboration among charities to address what is becoming a horrific public health crisis,” says GSK’s Donna Altenpohl.
Until recently, developing a vaccine wasn’t viewed as lucrative in the industry. But Adel Mahmoud, former President of Merck Vaccines says the power of this virus is persuasive.
“What has changed today is failure of almost all control methods that we now exist,” he says.
Mahmoud says with public health efforts like quarantine and containment falling short it’s now obvious a vaccine is essential. With millions of Africans in need as well as medical workers worldwide, Mahmoud says it’s clear there’s a huge market.
It’s not clear how profitable that market will be. But believe it or not, that’s a secondary concern right now to drug makers, says USC economist Joel Hay.
“They hope if they develop good vaccines they can be compensated at some point. But I don’t think they are doing this out of a profit motive, they are doing it because they believe it’s the right thing to do,” he says.
Certainly down the road, the company that comes up with a vaccine first could score a major public relations win. But right now, Hay says, nobody – including the drug makers – stand to benefit if Ebola spreads beyond West Africa.
“Just think what would happen if people though that airplanes were not safe to fly in. the economy could be devastated very quickly,” he says.
Hay says for pharmaceutical companies in the business of making people better it’s gut check time.