Ebola - The Price of Having No African Pharmaceutical Industry

Ebola – The Price of Having No African Pharmaceutical Industry

In a recent communication to a Financial Times conference the CEO of Bayer, Marijn Dekkers stated that the company developed its cancer drug “for western patients who can afford this product”. Not for the “ Indian market”. The company had been critical of the Indian government’s efforts to make cheap copies of its drug. His description of “poor Indians” may have well have been talking about the whole of the developing world.

Watch the attached video. A clip of his remarks can be seen at 18:30

Whether people like it or not, this is the truth. Pharmaceutical companies are not charities. Some may be more altruistic than others but at the heart of it all, they are profit-making organisations that make medicines for developed markets and are answerable to shareholders not patients and particularly not patients in developing countries. To think anything other than that is naïve. The profits for big pharma come from the developed world and not Africa, although some parts of the emerging market world are becoming increasingly more attractive.

Currently there are no available treatments on the market for Ebola. The Ebola virus is highly infectious and kills up to 90 percent of those it strikes, and the recent outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is the worst on record, resulting in up to 3000 deaths at the last count. The true number will probably never be known. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA have estimated that the outbreak could result in approximately 550,000 cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone or 1.4 million if corrections for under reporting are made by January 2015.

The bottom line is this. Despite the deadly nature of the disease, outbreaks are thankfully relatively rare. Their confinement to largely rural areas of poor African nations makes Ebola an unattractive target for large international pharmaceutical companies. The health care systems in the countries affected are also pretty weak. But at the core of it all, is the fact that the governments can’t pay for the drugs, even if they were available. Where governments can’t pay for life saving treatment, people die. Lots of people die, and nobody bats an eyelid.

Take HIV/AIDs. According to the most up to date statistics of the global HIV and AIDS epidemic published by UNAIDS, WHO and UNICEF in December 2012, 69 percent of the people living with the condition are in sub-Saharan Africa. There were 1.2 million deaths of people in Africa in 2012 as a result of the condition. Cumulatively there have been more than 25 million deaths globally since the disease was discovered in 1981, most in sub-Saharan Africa. A generation of young people have been lost to the ravages of this disease.

Today, in the developed world at least, HIV is no longer a death sentence. People can now live with the disease until old age, thanks to life saving highly active anti-retroviral drugs. But if you are in Africa, where getting the drugs is hit and miss, the odds are still stacked against you. Sub Saharan Africa still accounts for 73% of all deaths from AIDs.

Unfortunately, Africa has no real research based pharmaceutical industry of its own. Well certainly not one with the capabilities to take on the likes of Ebola. What there is, is in its infancy. It represents a brilliant opportunity for scientific entrepreneurs to tackle some of the pressing diseases of the continent and offer the solutions at a price point, which will be affordable.

According to Bloomberg, much of the research into Ebola treatments has been funded by the U.S. government. Recently, human tests of Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp. (TKMR)’s treatment for Ebola, were put on hold by U.S. regulators due to safety concerns. The
RNA-based therapy, was being developed under a $140 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Other therapies include antibody cocktails funded by Canada’s national public laboratory. Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc in San Diego, is developing another, as well as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. But there you have it, a condition that largely affects the African continent depends almost exclusively on countries and companies where the incentive to focus resources on it are limited.

So that’s the price. No pharma industry, no affordable drugs or treatments…..and/or limited focus aimed at killer diseases across the continent. If Africa could pay….the game would change over night. However, African scientists, clinicians and technicians have to take the lead for diseases that affect the continent. Many of the pioneering advances in medical science, emerged on the back of small-scale research and the behest of private citizens with social concerns.