Canadian pharma plays role in Ebola treatment in Africa


The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is unlike anything we have seen since the virus was discovered in the mid-1970s.

It has afflicted too many people and the death toll is climbing. There is no previous Ebola outbreak to match what is currently happening in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and most recently, Nigeria.

The numbers – and the stories coming from the afflicted regions – are heartbreaking.

You may not know that Canada’s pharmaceutical companies and life sciences sector are playing a pivotal role in developing medications to treat and prevent devastating medical conditions such as Ebola. It is a role we take very seriously. In fact, our innovative pharmaceutical companies actively contribute to more than 140 programs that benefit African nations.

These partnerships save lives, and not just by ensuring access to live-saving medicines and vaccines. Our combined efforts are building hospitals and clinics, training healthcare workers, ensuring access to staples like clean water and constructing roads that enable the movement of people and goods to and from the areas most in need. Our efforts are making significant progress on diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, dengue fever and tuberculosis.

But, as we are seeing in West Africa right now, there is no question that more can be done.

Unfortunately, developing new medications and treating the ill isn’t as easy as building a new road or even ensuring a clean water supply.

It takes more than a decade of research, development and testing – at a cost of more than $1 billion – to bring a new medication to market. With treatments and vaccines for the Ebola virus, we are close. Several experimental drugs have been developed, but these are not ready for mass use in humans.

While results in animals may be promising, there is no guarantee that success will be replicated in humans – despite the experimental medicine’s encouraging results. The process of developing new medicines takes time and ensures that those molecules or compounds that do make it to market are safe and effective.

At the moment, most critical is the early diagnosis of patients with Ebola and ensuring they are isolated to prevent its transmission. The healthcare professionals on the ground in West Africa right now are to be admired for their tireless devotion to achieve this, while putting their own health at risk.

It is clear that education is as important as medicine in addressing what is happening in West Africa. Infrastructure, clean water, training, and access to medicines are also key components needed for creating a better healthcare system in the developing world. The global pharmaceutical community currently has 220 active partnerships around the world to ensure healthcare projects are making a difference. Since 1990, our members have donated over $265 million in medication through Health Partners International of Canada, which translates to 11 million treatments in more than 110 countries.

It is short sighted and, quite frankly, wrong to imply pharmaceutical companies are sitting on the sidelines and not contributing to healthcare efforts in the Developing World.

In West Africa and elsewhere, we are actively delivering life-saving medicines and vaccines, part of a global effort that is trying to bring basic healthcare to the estimated one-third of the world’s population that do not currently have access to it. As a matter of fact, some of our companies are working toward a solution. Medicago Inc. a biotech company from Quebec, is working with partners on developing antibodies for Ebola. Medicago is also responsible for developing vaccines for other diseases such as influenza, rabies and rotavirus (according to the World Health Organization, rotavirus A causes approximately 500,000 deaths per year, most of which are concentrated in geographic regions with few resources). Abbott, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and Sanofi are partners in research on new tuberculosis medicines, with the goal to create a regimen that will cure tuberculosis in one month as opposed to the six months it currently takes.

Just recently, and after many years of research, GlaxoSmithKline announced it was submitting a regulatory application for its malaria vaccine candidate. It is estimated that malaria kills almost one child per minute. A vaccine that can help prevent that loss of life would be a tremendous health achievement. These examples paint a picture of our commitment to the developing world, but the list goes on. This global effort is simply a part of who we are, and of what we do.

Russell Williams is the president of Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (Rx&D). His column is distributed through Troy Media.