The Race to Develop an Ebola Vaccine

By Kim Smiley

Traditional public health methods have not been able to stop the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa and some experts are speculating that a vaccine may be necessary to quash the outbreak.  The only problem is an approved vaccine against Ebola doesn’t exist.

A Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, can be built to analyze this issue by intuitively laying out the causes that contribute to the problem.  A Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and documenting the answers on the Cause Map to show the cause-and-effect relationships.

So why isn’t there an approved Ebola vaccine?  There are several promising vaccines in development, but some of them are newer efforts that haven’t had time to go through the lengthy approval process.  A few potential vaccines have been around for years, but development stalled prior to the necessary human trials.  Prior to this year, there was limited potential revenue from an Ebola vaccine because of the limited demand so it has never been a high-priority product. Demand for, and interest in, producing an Ebola vaccine, has of course skyrocketed as a result of the ongoing epidemic in West Africa and Ebola cases popping up in other countries.

Now that companies are putting significant resources in the race to produce an Ebola vaccine there are still huge logistical obstacles that must be overcome.  At least two different vaccines should be ready for large-scale human trials early next year, but actually distributing the vaccine and tracking volunteers will require significant resources.  The vaccine must be kept at a constant temperature which can be difficult in regions of West Africa without reliability electricity.  Keeping track of thousands of volunteers is always a massive undertaking, but will be even more challenging in the middle of an epidemic in a region where the medical systems are overtaxed.  There is also a chance for significant political fallout if the vaccine created by Western countries and given to poor African nations turns out to have harmful side effects.

This topic raises some really difficult ethical issues.  How much do you fast-track a vaccine?  People are dying and an effective vaccine would save lives, but distributing a vaccine prior to the normally required testing could also result in significant human suffering if there is an unexpected side effect.  When has a vaccine been tested “enough” to justify giving it to people in a high-risk environment?  Even designing the human trials requires some hard decisions.  Do you conduct a blind study with a control group, knowing that some of that group is statistically likely to be infected with a deadly disease? There is a lot of gray area and it’s difficult to know what the right answer is.  Thousands of lives may hang in the balance and there isn’t a lot precedence in how best to respond to the challenge of this Ebola outbreak.

If you’d like to learn more about this epidemic, you can read our previous blogs:

Patient With Ebola Sent Home From ER

Ebola Outbreak Claiming Lives of Medical Staff

Hundreds Affected in ‘Unprecedented’ Ebola Outbreak