The Ethics of Ebola

As the Ebola virus – which can kill up to 90% of its victims – grips an unprecedentedly wide swath of Africa, many are asking whether it is time to begin administering untested drugs and vaccines. But the suggestion raises difficult ethical questions, and the urgency of the situation does not leave much time for deliberation.

LONDON – As the Ebola virus grips an unprecedentedly wide swath of Africa, many are asking whether it is time to begin administering untested drugs and vaccines. Given that the disease can kill up to 90% of its victims – higher than the mortality rate from the bubonic plague – there seems to be little to lose from relaxing clinical norms. But the suggestion raises difficult ethical questions – and the urgency of the situation does not leave much time for deliberation.

One reason that there is no proven cure or vaccine for Ebola hemorrhagic fever is the wiliness of crossover diseases. These viruses are transmitted from animal populations, which can act as reservoirs where the pathogens can develop and mutate, making it difficult for researchers to keep pace with the diseases’ variations.

But another reason is pharmaceutical companies’ declining interest in manufacturing vaccines. Indeed, only four companies today make vaccines, compared to 26 companies 50 years ago. These firms know that the return on their investment will be relatively low, owing to the long lead-in time that results from slow manufacturing processes (though new, faster methods offer some hope).

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