Ebola and the Profit-Driven Healthcare Industry

By Lauren McCauley

Speaking before a gathering of African health ministers on Monday, November 3, 2014, the leader of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the blame for the Ebola crisis lies largely on the “profit-driven” pharmaceutical industry, which does not invest in cures “for markets that cannot pay.”

WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan made the comments while speaking before the Regional Committee for Africa, made up of representatives from the 47 African nations, which is meeting this week in Cotonou, Republic of Benin.

During her address, Chan said that despite Africa’s recent economic and social gains, the Ebola outbreak bolsters two arguments that WHO has long made “that have fallen on deaf ears for decades [and] are now out there with consequences that all the world can see, every day, on prime-time TV news.”

One, she said, is the failure to put basic public health infrastructures in place. The second argument, Chan said, is the reason that clinicians are “still empty-handed, with no vaccines and no cure,” despite Ebola having emerged nearly four decades ago: “Because Ebola has historically been confined to poor African nations. The research and development incentive is virtually non-existent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.”

Speaking before the group, Chan argued that this crisis should provide the assembled ministers with an incentive to seize their new health agenda on their own terms. The Committee is meeting to set new policies to guide WHO’s work in the region, including a strategic plan for immunization.

Africa, she continued, has “suffered from some bad development advice.”

“As you all know, much of Africa’s growth has been concentrated in sectors, such as mining and petroleum, that favor the elite but do little to improve living conditions and health status in the rural areas where most of the poor and sick reside,” said Chan. She added that previously, Africa has deferred to priorities and strategies defined by global initiatives and not its own population’s needs.

In April, African health ministers vowed to work towards continent-wide universal health coverage. Citing that pledge, Chan added: “This is what I mean by leadership.”

According to WHO’s latest numbers, there have been 13,567 reported Ebola cases in eight affected countries since the outbreak began, with 4,951 reported deaths. Further, UNICEF estimates that five million children are currently affected by the epidemic and some 4,000 have become orphaned.

Intense transmission continues in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where there are reports of a new “transmission surge.” The Sunday Times, quoting numbers from Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative, reported this week that in Sierra Leone transmission rates are now nine times higher than they were two months ago. Other affected countries include Nigeria, Senegal, the U.S. and Spain. Mali also confirmed its first case last week.

Chan said that the Ebola outbreak, which continues to ravage parts of West Africa, “is the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times.”

Chan concluded: “Without fundamental public health infrastructures in place, no country is stable. No society is secure. No resilience exists to withstand the shocks that our 21st century societies are delivering with ever-greater frequency and force, whether from a changing climate or a runaway killer virus.”

Common Dreams, November 4, 2014