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Getting Ahead of Ebola and Other Infectious Threats—Overturning Assumptions

February 9, 2015
Ebola was one of the biggest stories of 2014 (with Ebola fighters named the TIME Person of the Year), and the epidemic has led to renewed interest from governments and philanthropies to tackle the problem of emerging infectious diseases. To discuss the lessons learned and new approaches being taken in light of the Ebola crisis, BIO hosted a panel today at the 17th Annual BIO CEO & Investor Conference here in New York, moderated by Phyllis Arthur, BIO’s senior director for vaccines, immunotherapeutics and diagnostics policy.

One lesson that was quite clear is that inadequate government support for medical countermeasures research for Ebola and other emerging infectious diseases was a major contributor to the lack of available therapies and vaccines to combat the Ebola epidemic last year. Sarepta CEO Chris Garabedian noted:

“We had the largest advanced development contract awarded for Ebola and Marburg at the time from the Department of Defense. The standard experiments that are used for Ebola are monkey models in BSL (bio safety level)-4 labs. We had conducted studies that involved 90 non-human primates; 67 of those received treatment. That’s more than any of the other investigational drugs – maybe combined. So we had the most significant data set, we had brought it far along under the animal rule with the FDA, and we were the first novel therapeutic being developed expressly for Ebola and not as an add-on indication. Despite that, we had our contract cut in 2012.”

Garabedian also emphasized that investor appetite for infectious tropical disease R&D is almost non-existent: One of Sarepta’s highest single-day stock market jumps was the day they announced they were discontinuing their Ebola program.

Guillaume Leroy, Sanofi Pasteur’s head of Dengue vaccines, discussed some of the challenges they have experienced with their Dengue vaccine program, which began over 20 years ago. The two largest barriers have been the resources required and the risk. To date, they have invested over $1.5 billion dollars in their Dengue vaccine. On the risk side, Leroy stressed that traditional clinical trial risk and getting the vaccine approved is only one part of the equation. They’ve also had to overcome obstacles in delivery and ensuring patient access, which can be a complicating factor in many areas most vulnerable to infectious diseases. Such areas often lack the infrastructure needed to deliver and administer complex or fragile medications.

Peter Khoury, senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recounting the Foundation’s experiences with the Ebola outbreak, also mentioned logistics and transportation as being among the greatest challenges. He thanked the U.S. military for providing invaluable support with transporting patients, personnel, and supplies in the Ebola stricken countries, and noted that they are of the few, if not only, organizations capable of providing such support. He also discussed the need for data systems to track outbreaks, show how a disease is working, who is being impacted, and whether it is expanding or contracting – and that such data needs to be shared and widely available for the many governments and organizations involved in fighting the outbreak.