When the Ebola outbreak occurred in 2014, mass hysteria ensued, reaching as far as Canada and the United States. This outbreak was the largest in West African history, killing 8,153 people and infecting 20, 650. Similarly, the Zika Virus scare, originating in Brazil and sweeping across the Americas, caused nation-wide panic over the summer and was more terrifying because of its newness. Its consequences were, and still are, unpredictable. Both outbreaks are being contained as much as possible, but their vaccines have yet to be mass-produced.
With medical technology breaking boundaries every day, why haven’t we been able to develop effective vaccines? Even more frustratingly, how is it possible that vaccines are developed to prevent epidemics in poorer nations, and then shelved without being used? This is exactly what happened with Ebola; researchers from Canada and the US developed a vaccine to inoculate against low-risk Ebola. The vaccine had a “100% success rate” on monkeys and was supposed to be released in 2011. But, somewhere along the way, Ebola vaccines became a low priority. That is, until 2014.
Now, two years after the raging Ebola epidemic, an effective vaccine to inoculate against this highly-virulent strain of Ebola is still in the stages of testing. Bringing the discussion home, medical clinics in Toronto have only just received their flu vaccines. Why does it take so long to make vaccines against illnesses we are already aware of?
The answer lies in how vaccines are made, and who makes them.
Vaccines are a preventative measure. They contain a heavily weakened and sterilized illness-causing agent. Upon being injected into the body, vaccines prime the immune system to make antibodies against that specific illness. Antibodies are the body’s infection-fighting clean-up crew. When the illness is successfully fought off, antibodies cease production. But the immune system records and stores everything about the illness. If the illness comes around in full force later, the immune system recognizes it and rapidly stimulates antibody production in response.
Designing a safe and effective vaccine takes both time and money.
As an example, flu vaccines are made using chicken eggs. Researchers predict which flu strain will be most prominent during flu season, months before it happens. They pass that information along to private vaccine-manufacturing companies. The viruses which cause that influenza strain are incubated and replicated in eggs, collected via machines, weakened and chemically modified, and assembled into vaccines by these private companies.
Several issues arise from this vaccine-production system. For example, the predicted influenza strain might not be the one that hits during flu season, spoiling months’ worth of work. As well, manufacturing companies may not have enough healthy chicken eggs to make higher-than-usual vaccine quotas. Another problem is that the eggs must be grown in sufficiently sterile environments so that they are not contaminated with avian illnesses. In fact, these are only some of the variables that are out of the control of vaccine-production companies.
However, two things are within the control of these manufacturing companies: finances and the choice of whether or not life-saving but unprofitable vaccines can be manufactured, like those for Ebola. Although Ebola vaccines were ready for human trials by 2011, the lack of “a big market for Ebola vaccines” sent corporate interests elsewhere. For three years, a vaccine with the potential to inoculate against Ebola gathered dust because it was too cheap. Had Ebola sprung up in affluent countries instead, the response to it would have been very different. Those vaccines are ineffective against the current strain of Ebola because they were designed against a less-virulent strain of the illness. But efforts to produce and test effective Ebola vaccines are underway again .
Designing vaccines for illnesses such as Ebola or the Zika Virus is also time-consuming because the illness-causing agents mutate quickly, sometimes faster than researchers can pinpoint and work against. Complicating matters further are the dangerous and potentially fatal symptoms of Ebola, and the not-yet fully understood effects of Zika virus. In these cases, limits on vaccine-testing are stricter because the stakes of failure are higher.
Vaccine-production is a mostly privatized process, and we see the negative effects of that. The case of Ebola vaccines makes one wonder what future illnesses the world might be unprepared for because a company is too cost-effective and money-hungry. But, there’s hope. Smallpox was at one point an illness which claimed thousands of lives, and harmed many more. But because of a “lengthy and painstaking process, which identified all cases and their contacts and ensured that they were all vaccinated,” it was successfully eradicated. With the medical technology we have today and a commitment to equity-driven policy-making, we have the potential to make Ebola, and other virulent illnesses, things of the past, too.
By Hagr Saad and Aishah Cader
Please note that opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.