Weekly Roundup – 10/25/14: Why Ebola could spell collaboration for drugmakers and even adversarial countries
The Ebola outbreak has turned into a worldwide finger-wagging session.
On one side are those lecturing that health care organizations should have seen it coming.
On another are those who urge patience, or urgency, or even patience and urgency.
Particularly annoying at this point are the pundits who tsk-tsk people for acting like fraidy cats; there are, these pilers-on say, lots of things scarier than Ebola, like the flu, or skin cancer, or handguns. They’re right, of course, from a pure numbers standpoint. But is it unreasonable for people to be anxious about a relatively new, deadly disease for which there is no proven cure?
Indeed, when it comes to the Ebola outbreak, there is no shortage of people taking the high road.
More productive, perhaps, are those in the trenches trying to fix this growing problem. Like the drugmakers who, in un-drugmaker-like fashion, given their competitive situations, have decided to work together to find a vaccine for Ebola.
Johnson & Johnson is collaborating with GlaxoSmithKline – and, in turn, various government agencies and other technology and pharmaceutical firms – to speed the process toward finding a reliable cure. Paul Stoffels, J&J’s head of research, said the plan is to come up with more than one vaccine candidate and then focus on the clear winner. “It might even be that we have to combine their vaccine with ours,” Stoffels said.
Bear in mind, even if a cure is found, the financial upside for the companies isn’t expected to be monumental. Ebola afflicts mostly the poor and there probably won’t be a big need to stockpile the vaccine in developed countries. So whatever J&J and GSK et al come up with, and whatever the upfront costs, the vaccine must be both affordable and available in order to make a long-term impact in developing countries like Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone.
But who knows what other opportunities these collaborations might unlock and what other preventable infectious diseases could be attacked in similar fashion?
Rather than focusing on what should have and could have been done to prevent Ebola, we might look at it through a different prism: It’s already led to some interesting partnerships. What else might be possible?
Ebola as a de-icer
While it’s interesting to see potentially competitive companies find common ground, it’s downright shocking when sworn enemies from back in the Cold War days start a dialogue – and that’s exactly what happened this week in the Ebola-changed world.
Fidel Castro himself said, via newspaper article, that Cuba “will gladly cooperate with American personnel” on Ebola. That was followed by a U.S. State Department source saying, “We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Cuba to confront the Ebola outbreak.”
All this thawing of ice might bode well not just for Ebola, but for a future health care marketplace in post-Castro Cuba … and maybe even a current health care marketplace.
Cuba officially has no private health care, but health care is nonetheless big business there. The country has sent tens of thousands of medical professionals overseas in the past five decades and has trained thousands of foreign doctors in Cuba. The result of this “doctor diplomacy” – besides international goodwill – is about $6 billion a year to Cuba (much of it from Venezuela, in oil subsidies). And every dollar is needed because the government has admitted that it can no longer support its universal free health care model, no matter how many kudos it’s received.
Since taking over the government from his brother Fidel in 2006, Raúl Castro has been gradually privatizing the economy in hopes of reviving it.
Marino Murillo, who is heading up Cuba’s economic reforms, openly talks – for the first time in more than 50 years – about things like “social property,” “wealth creation,” “price signals” and “market factors.” He even said, “Life has shown that the state can’t do everything.”
The result of all the above is a statement like this, from Steven G. Ullmann (in a paper entitled “The Future of Health Care in a Post-Castro Cuba”): “If there are to be any major opportunities for investment and potential growth (in Cuba), they may be found in the health care industry.”
It’s fascinating to ponder that Ebola might play a historic role in U.S.-Cuban relations.