TKM-Ebola: Vaccine or Voodoo?

Sombit Mishra

The stock market has witnessed heavy trading of the Vancouver-based company Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (TKMR) over the last year, in large part due to the public panic over the recent spread of the Ebola virus.

TKM-Ebola Stock Price, 2013-2014

The growing Ebola scare, and potential spread to the US, is no doubt raising the public cry for a vaccine. No matter how scary things get though, we must be careful not to let the short-term market winds and public panic--which are interrelated--cloud our judgment as to whether pharmaceuticals/vaccines are based on sound science.

The initial experiments for TKM-Ebola--TKMR's test vaccine for Ebola--have been positive, but so far the vaccine has only been tested in non-human primates.  Furthermore, it's only been found to be effective against 1 of 5 Ebola strains.

Ebola Outbreak - courtesy of BBC.co.uk

What's most discouraging is the lack of private investment for Ebola vaccine R&D.  This dearth of funding is in large part due to the fact Ebola outbreaks are sporadic in nature and concentrated in low-income geographies like Africa.  

With the magnitude of the recent outbreak, however, the US Defense Department has amped up support for TKM-Ebola trials.   But there are still considerable obstacles.  The FDA has been slow to green light TKMR Phase I trials, and despite being scheduled for "Fast Track" regulatory reviews, it will likely be a minimum of 2-3 years before Phase II/III Human trials are complete.

It will be interesting to see whether the recent outbreak pushes Congress and the President to create new Fast Track legislation to trial promising vaccines on human subjects in the interest of public safety.  This invites a broader ethical discussion about human subjects testing but when weighed against the alternative of moving at a snail's pace against an impending, calamitous virus outbreak, it appears that such discussion/legislation warrants further attention.