Ebola outbreak: Western drugs firms have not tried to find vaccine 'because virus only affects Africans', says UK's top public health doctor

Professor John Ashton accuses pharmaceutical industry of 'moral bankruptcy'

Political Editor

Britain's leading public health doctor today blames the failure to find a vaccine against the Ebola virus on the "moral bankruptcy" of the pharmaceutical industry to invest in a disease because it has so far only affected people in Africa – despite hundreds of deaths.

Professor John Ashton, the president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, says the West needs to treat the deadly virus as if it were taking hold in the wealthiest parts of London rather than just Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Writing in The Independent on Sunday, Professor Ashton compares the international response to Ebola to that of Aids, which was killing people in Africa for years before treatments were developed once it had spread to the US and UK in the 1980s.

He writes: "In both cases [Aids and Ebola], it seems that the involvement of powerless minority groups has contributed to a tardiness of response and a failure to mobilise an adequately resourced international medical response.

"In the case of Aids, it took years for proper research funding to be put in place and it was only when so-called 'innocent' groups were involved (women and children, haemophiliac patients and straight men) that the media, politicians, scientific community and funding bodies stood up and took notice."

The Ebola outbreak has so far claimed the lives of at least 729 people across Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO), although the number is likely to be far higher.

Yesterday, a US relief organisation confirmed that two US aid workers who contracted the disease in Liberia had left the country. Dr Kent Brantly was being treated in a specialised hospital unit in Atlanta, Georgia, after becoming the first person with the disease to arrive on US soil yesterday evening. The second aid worker, Nancy Writebol, was due to land on a separate private flight.

On Friday, the WHO warned that the outbreak in West Africa was "moving faster than our efforts to control it". The organisation's director general, Dr Margaret Chan, warned that if the situation continued to deteriorate, the consequences would be "catastrophic" to human life. Professor Ashton believes that more money must be funnelled into research for treatment.

"We must respond to this emergency as if it was in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster. We must also tackle the scandal of the unwillingness of the pharmaceutical industry to invest in research [on] treatments and vaccines, something they refuse to do because the numbers involved are, in their terms, so small and don't justify the investment. This is the moral bankruptcy of capitalism acting in the absence of a moral and social framework."

Western countries are on high alert after Patrick Sawyer, a civil servant for the Liberian government, died last week after arriving at Lagos airport – the first known case in Nigeria. International airline hubs are the focus of attention because of the high volume of passengers flying into and out of West Africa every day. Dubai's Emirates airline began a ban yesterday on its flights in Guinea over the crisis, with the suspension lasting until further notice.

Professor Ashton welcomed the decision by the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, to convene a meeting of the Government's crisis committee, Cobra, last week to discuss the UK's preparedness for cases of Ebola in this country.

Development of a vaccine is in the early stages in the US, but this is on a small scale and there is little hope of one being ready to treat the current outbreak in West Africa. Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has said it has plans possibly to begin testing an experimental Ebola vaccine on people in mid-September, following encouraging results in pre-clinical trials on monkeys. Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration put a hold on a trial upon healthy volunteers by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation to ensure their potential Ebola treatment has no ill-effects, as it sought more information to ensure the safety of volunteers.

Professor Ashton said: "The real spotlight needs to be on the poverty and environmental squalor in which epidemics thrive and the failure of political leadership and public health systems to respond effectively. The international community has to be shamed into real commitment... if the root causes of diseases like Ebola are to be addressed."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an I...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen