It’s unfortunate that Ebola drugs and vaccines are still experimental during the worst-ever outbreak of the virus. Ebola is causing massive disruption and economic damage in West Africa. The projection that, if things keep going as they are, tens of thousands could be infected by October is frightening.
But as I argue in my latest column over at Pacific Standard, we’ve already got the tools we need to fight the outbreak. While drugs and vaccines would without question be helpful, the main challenges are social, not scientific. Ebola infections have a high fatality rate, but like HIV (which infects almost 25 million Africans), the virus is not that inherently contagious. Outbreaks in the past have been quickly brought to an end with standard infectious disease control measures.
But there is the problem – those measures have failed in West Africa, and local institutions have been overwhelmed. Wealthier nations have been slow to give the help that’s needed. Contagion is not only a function of the virus itself, but also on social conditions. The current conditions in West Africa — poverty, poor communication, and a justified mistrust of local governments — have allowed this outbreak to get so bad. We don’t need to wring our hands over missing vaccines or drugs; we need to provide the equipment and personnel to tamp down the outbreak using the effective tools we already have on hand.
A 2006 report from a major conference on Ebola said as much:
The good news is that there may be much to be gained just by refocusing our efforts on aggressive supportive care and clinical monitoring. The fundamental knowledge and technology to provide such care are available if the political will is there. Further down the road lie potential benefits from recent research advances, particularly in the area of vaccines. However, the success of all of these measures will require the development of physical infrastructure, human resources, and logistical and legal frameworks for clinical care and research of the filovirusinfected patient in Africa.