How the Ebola outbreak sparked the fastest vaccine development efforts ever
The 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak is stimulating the fastest vaccine development efforts ever attempted, demonstrating the power of an emerging model that combines the expertise, capabilities and resources of experienced pharma companies, government biomedical research agencies, philanthropies and non-governmental organizations.
Difficult challenges must be overcome before one or more vaccines are ready for widespread use, so it is too early to declare victory. But it is already clear that the model will have to be expanded or modified if it is to become a template for addressing the many known infectious disease threats, or creating the capacity to rapidly respond to new ones.
The biggest limitation is the reliance on multinational pharma companies, which are committing substantial resources without expectations of financial returns. To be successful, smaller biotechs need to be integrated into the model - and, given their limited resources, they can't be expected to work at a loss.
Even if the ongoing efforts succeed in producing vaccines in record time, the extraordinary investments and progress made over the past six months will have come too late to save the lives of over 10,000 people who have died from Ebola since the outbreak began in the spring of 2014.
Successful public health measures could extinguish the current outbreak before vaccines are ready. Nonetheless, the crash effort to develop vaccines is valuable, both as insurance in case the current outbreak spins out of control again, and for combating future outbreaks that are certain to flare up.
Even more importantly, the fire drill has generated lessons that should improve the way society prepares for future outbreaks of deadly infectious diseases (see "Learning from Ebola," page 7).
On Aug. 8, 2014, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern," three vaccine candidates developed with public funds had been tested in Phase I trials and dropped, and efforts to develop better versions of the vaccines were moving forward slowly.
Since August, the international scientific community, philanthropies, national and international government agencies and medical NGOs have come together to