In 2014, TIME magazine's "Person of the Year" was the Ebola fighter, and with good reason. Ebola captivated the world last year, inspiring fear and doubt as to whether the next great pandemic had been born. Thankfully, more than a year after the Ebola virus became a household name in America, the epidemic appears to be under control.
How the Ebola outbreak captivated the globe
According to the latest data from the World Health Organization, as of Oct. 9, 2015, 28,429 global cases of Ebola were confirmed, probable, or suspected worldwide. Of these cases, 11,297 ended with the death of the patient, for a mortality percentage of a frightening 40%.
There were a number of factors that made the Ebola virus so frightening for Americans and people around the world. First, the virus itself had an exceptionally varied incubation period, making containment of the disease difficult. Following exposure to the active portion of the disease (i.e., when Ebola patients were feverish), the virus could manifest in newly infected patients anywhere between two and 21 days later. In Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, the three countries most directly affected by Ebola, there were few safeguards in place, which made it difficult to quarantine patients once they were infected or were carriers of the disease.
On top of the incubation factor, Ebola is also a disease with no current cure. Doctors in the U.S. threw everything but thing the kitchen sink at Thomas Duncan, the first patient to be diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil, and the only person of four cases in the U.S. to pass away.
With newly-reported cases now extremely sparse, it looks as if the Ebola virus will move to the back burner. However, this in no way means the virus is a thing of the past that we should forget about. In fact, I'd opine that the Ebola outbreak taught a number of lessons that we as consumers and investors should all take to heart.
Disease outbreaks are unexpected and unpredictable
This should probably go without me having to point it out, but disease outbreaks are outbreaks because they catch a country, or the world, off-guard. There is no viable way to predict when a disease will return, or if it has mutated from a prior version that researchers have studied.
If you look at the way researchers and drug developers treat influenza within the U.S., you can get a pretty good idea of what I mean. Within the U.S., researchers predict which two type A influenza strains and which two type B strains are likely to predominate in the upcoming flu season. But, here's the catch: There are multiple influenza subtypes, so all researchers are doing are using the best historical data they have and interjecting the most recent influenza they may have from late in the most recent flu season. You'd be surprised how often researchers are right, but it's not (small-f) foolproof by any means. Once in a while, researchers and drugmakers are out in left field.
What we need to understand is that viruses are mutable, and it's impossible to predict which one will present the next pandemic threat.
Better disease safeguards are needed worldwide
Secondly, it's very evident following the spread of Ebola through Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea that better safeguards are needed when dealing with suspected vaccine outbreak patients. The World Health Organization points out that a number of failures allowed the Ebola virus to run rampant for more than a year in these three countries.
For example, WHO points out that control prevention measures within a country need to work seamlessly to control the transmission of the disease. In certain instances, subjects were left within a local community while waiting days for their test results, thus prolonging potential exposure of the virus. Unless strict protocols are followed in the future, quarantining a disease could prove difficult, if not impossible.
Additionally, WHO points to the need for a research and laboratory network to be in place for all countries as a groundwork to keep diseases at bay before they can become a pandemic. WHO cites Nigeria, Senegal, and Mali as being particularly quick on their feet with regard to deploying laboratory testing and researchers to keep the Ebola virus at bay. All three countries managed to end Ebola transmissions in a relatively short period of time.
Vaccines take time to develop and may not be economically viable
Another common misconception during the Ebola outbreak was backlash against drugmakers for not "anticipating" the outbreak sooner and developing a vaccine years ago.
What people fail to understand is that the drug development process isn't something that's done in the snap of a finger, and it needs to be economically viable.
Under normal circumstances, it can take around a decade to take a drug from the laboratory discovery stage to an approval from the Food and Drug Administration. For some drugs and vaccines, this process is shorter, but for others, it could prove even longer. Ebola vaccine developers have actually been working at breakneck speeds since the midpoint of last year, with some already issuing data on late-stage studies. Even with an expedited review process we're probably not looking at an Ebola vaccine making it to pharmacy shelves before mid-2017, or a full two years after aggressive research into the disease began.
The other aspect investors and interested consumers should be aware of is that the drug development process needs to be beneficial to the developing company, otherwise it won't typically undertake it. Drug developers do grant breaks to low-income individuals and sell medicines in emerging markets at below-cost prices from time to time. However, drug developers also need to be able to keep the lights on, which means sometimes being selective with regard to the diseases they tackle. Prior to the Ebola outbreak, there simply weren't enough instances of Ebola to consider tackling the development of a vaccine.
At the moment, the leading experimental Ebola vaccine being developed by Merck (NYSE:MRK) and NewLink Genetics (NASDAQ:NLNK), known as rVSV-ZEBOV, appears to be a blend of charitable giving and profit-seeking. Merck's Vaccines division VP Mark Feinberg noted in an interview with CNBC a few months ago that it undertook Ebola research in partnership with NewLink Genetics to "address a public health need." But, it's also possible rVSV-ZEBOV could lead to substantial global sales if it succeeds in being approved by the FDA. However, that demand will likely be dictated by the vaccine's shelf life and the activity of the Ebola virus at the time.
Long story short, it's likely the Ebola virus will pop up again at some point in the future. We can only hope that governments around the world, researchers, and drug developers have learned their lessons from this past outbreak and can apply them to more effectively and expeditiously eradicating Ebola the next time around.