The real Ebola dilemma

By Heather M. Ross, HSD Student

vaccine with dollar signs

Should medical research be market driven?

President Obama’s Ebola ethics dilemma is merely a headline — a critical case that illustrates a much broader problem with medical research and particularly vaccine development in the United States and worldwide. One of the choices that we have made as a nation is to pursue a market economy in nearly all sectors. One of the realities of that choice is that the market does not support the underdog — the few who lack critical resources to react to threatening environmental changes. As a result, when we rely on a market-based system to drive medical research that may not be profitable in the short term or even medium term, that system is unlikely to respond to potential future threats — no matter how high the potential cost — if there is not a reasonable promise of economic return in the end. As many scholars have noted in the past, the system is designed to yield a flood of drugs to treat high cholesterol and erectile dysfunction, but barely a trickle of vaccines for rare but deadly viruses. This Ebola case is not altogether different from the case of research for a vaccine for AIDS, documented so nicely by Jon Cohen in his 2001 book Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine.

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