Ebola still a tough target due to Big Pharma disinterest and few outbreaks

In the nearly 40 years since scientists first nailed down the Ebola virus, drug researchers have yet to commercialize an effective therapy for the deadly disease, a problem made worse by a lack of commercial promise and the relative rarity of outbreaks.

Cases of Ebola are largely limited to rural African countries, where access to healthcare is scarce, thus making trial enrollment a challenge, Reuters reports. Furthermore, there have been only about 10,000 reported cases of the virus since its discovery, according to Bloomberg, creating little economic incentive for major drugmakers to spend big on multinational development programs.

As such, much of the support for anti-Ebola treatments comes from government funding, like the Department of Defense's $140 million contract with Tekmira ($TKM), which began human trials of its RNAi drug in January. Elsewhere, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Inovio Pharmaceuticals ($IVO) and Vaxart all have potential Ebola vaccines in preclinical stages, and the Scripps Research Institute is leading a group of 15 public and private institutions in an effort to develop treatments for the virus.

But success in animal studies is not necessarily a predictor of clinical efficacy, and Reading University virology professor Ian Jones told Reuters there's not much cause for optimism in the Ebola research community

"There are a few experimental vaccines, but the question is whether anybody would take on the costs of manufacture based on the likely number of doses they would eventually sell," Jones said. "The numbers of people infected are low, and at the end of the day somebody has to fund the production of a drug or vaccine. As things stand, that is unlikely."

Meanwhile, an outbreak of Ebola has sprung up in Guinea, so far infecting 88 people and killing 63 of them, Bloomberg reports. That could spell an opportunity to both gather clinical data on a promising treatment and save patients' lives, but, as in all cases of compassionate use, legal and ethical quandaries abound.

- read the Bloomberg story
- here's Reuters' take