An air of panic has begun to spread across the US following two Ebola scares in Boston. The WHO stated that Ebola is still spreading geographically, raising concerns regarding the progress of an Ebola vaccine, a project that the NIH has undertaken since 2001 with few results to show for it. The NIH’s current Ebola vaccine is successfully undergoing tests with monkeys, but it could take several months before human trials begin. Another experimental drug named Zmapp has been deployed to fight Ebola with moderate success, but stock levels are low, due once again to budget cuts. While the US works on its vaccine through the NIH, the Canadian government is developing its own Ebola programme, but it is months behind the NIH in terms of research.
Private sector pharmaceutical companies have little to no Ebola-focused programmes. WHO director general Margaret Chan has chastised private sector organisations for not investing in diseases that predominantly affect poor communities with no income to pay for medication.
While authorities scramble to develop a vaccine to prevent new cases, as opposed to the current method of treating the symptoms and trying to contain the outbreak, the situation in West Africa grows ever more urgent. Proposals have already been put forward to increase the NIH’s budget from about $29 billion to $46 billion by 2021, but such measures are years too late for the current Ebola outbreak. Collins claims that, if not for the budget cuts, the NIH would have been “a year or two ahead” with their vaccine research
There has been a more galvanised response from the US and Western society since the death of US citizen Thomas Duncan and the subsequent spread of Ebola to one of his nurses. Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Facebook, has announced his plans to donate $25 million to Ebola research. The UN has founded a new agency, the Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, which some say is late in coming. BBC Africa reported that, according to officials, they did not realise how out of control the situation was.
The slow response from Western countries seems to reflect a detached social perception of faraway disasters, such as epidemics or natural disasters. The US government’s decision to marginalise funding for medical research is also worrying.
On the other side of the world, many EU scientists have expressed their concern about budget cuts to research and development following the EU’s tough economic climate over the last few years. Their argument is that scientific research is essential to solving medium and long-term problems, and giving it a low priority because of the absence of immediate results is a dangerous path to follow into the future.
A concern is how our children’s children will deal with the problems of their age when no preparation took place in the years before. After all, today’s society enjoys all the intense research done by the US and the USSR during the Cold War, a time when there was a powerful incentive for governments to improve their technology by all means possible. Today, no such incentive exists and it falls solely on human conscience to understand that future challenges for the world, however distant they may seem, could very easily be avoided by preparing for them during a time when it seems unrewarding to do so.
The lack of response to such a rapid outbreak has alarmed many officials in the UN. Hopefully it will result in a more alert and aggressive system for dealing with future potential epidemics.
While Ebola was confined to West Africa, Western society hardly noticed its deadly potential. Even as the most recent outbreak became more severe, most people took little notice, but now that a citizen has been diagnosed on US soil and the outbreak is slowly turning into an epidemic, calls for a vaccine are being heard. Accusations are being thrown at the US government for failing to prepare a response to such an outcome, leaving them, along with most of the world, uneducated and unprepared to deal with Ebola.
Illustration: Jaco Stroebel and Monrique Hennig