No end is in sight to the current outbreak of Ebola, the worst of its kind in history. On Sept. 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States issued a horrifying forecast that by next January, up to 1.4 million people could be infected with the Ebola virus, and it criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for failing to accurately grasp the prevailing circumstances and for underestimating the seriousness.
Other countries are also criticizing the WHO for not having paid enough attention to Ebola, thus allowing the virus to spread, and for not being able to effectively cope with it.
The WHO’s inability to fight Ebola can be traced not only to its own organizational problems but also to its “collusive relations” with the pharmaceutical industry. Brice de le Vingne, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders (also known by its French acronym MSF, which stands for Medecins Sans Frontieres), said in an interview with Reuters that the present state of WHO could be compared to a frog placed in a pot of tepid water on a stove. It would feel comfortable at first but would not perceive the danger as the water temperature slowly rose and eventually would be boiled alive.
The initial report on the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa was issued by the Health Ministry of Guinea on March 22, which said 59 patients had died since the confirmation of the first Ebola case on Feb. 9. This was followed by announcements by the health ministries of Liberia and Sierra Leone on March 24 and 25, respectively, that patients had been infected with and died of Ebola in the countries.
Since the existence of the Ebola virus was first confirmed by the international community in 1976, the disease has broken out in several African countries a number of times.
The most serious case of Ebola outbreak until recently was the one that occurred in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which 280 people died in 1976. In subsequent cases, the disease died out when the number of patients grew to between 200 and 300, although some of these figures are subject to doubt.
This time, however, the number of deaths from Ebola has already exceeded 4,000 (as of this writing) and there is no prospect of the outbreak coming to an end. Without doubt, the world is faced with by far the worst case of Ebola infection in history.
In the past, Ebola was thought to be so deadly that it would kill every resident in a village but then stop spreading any further because there were no more potential victims. In the current outbreak, however, there have been cases of the virus having penetrated into urban areas or crossed national boundaries, as occurred in March.
Acting quickly to counter such trends was Doctors without Borders, which warned the whole world on March 31 that Ebola was spreading at an unprecedented pace. The WHO countered its warning, however, by saying that careful judgments must be made on the sporadic cases that were occurring.
It was not until August that the WHO declared a state of emergency. In its July issue, a medical journal hinted at the possibility of the first case of Ebola infection in the current outbreak occurring in 2013, based on a postmortem examination of the victim. This means it took the WHO more than eight months to recognize the real situation.
This inaction on the part of the world body was bitterly criticized by The New York Times and The Washington Post newspapers, the former asking what the world had been doing for 40 years following the discovery of Ebola and the latter urging creation of a fund to develop new drugs to combat the virus.
Both papers not only criticized the inability of the WHO but also took pharmaceutical manufacturers to task for avoiding developing cures and vaccines for Ebola because of their priority on making profits. Indeed, a high-ranking WHO official effectively admitted on Aug. 12 that the organization had ignored Ebola patients in poor African countries because it had calculated that the economic dynamics do not work in the case of Ebola. The WHO and the pharmaceutical industry have a cozy relationship, according to a journalist who has covered medical situations involving refugees.
Doubts have long existed in Europe about the way the WHO is operated. At its meeting in January 2010, the 47-nation Council of Europe created a special panel to study whether the WHO was right in declaring a state of pandemic following the spread of a new type of influenza the previous year.
In June 2010, the panel issued a report denouncing the WHO for wasting huge sums of public money and creating unfounded fears among European citizens. Paul Flynn, a member of the panel and also a Labour representative in the British House of Commons, said there were reasons to suspect that the pharmaceutical industry had exerted its influence in leading the WHO to decide to issue the pandemic declaration.
The WHO’s declaration caused many countries to scramble to make emergency purchase of vaccines from pharmaceutical giants like GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis Pharma.
Japan was no exception as it paid about ¥32 billion to Novartis alone for enough vaccine for 25 million doses. But 16 million doses of this vaccine worth ¥21 billion was never used and eventually disposed of. The Japanese side also paid a penalty of about ¥9 billion to cancel a contract for vaccine for 8 million doses. Thus the pandemic declaration by the WHO helped major pharmaceutical firms sell trillions of yen worth of vaccine worldwide.
The WHO itself is staffed with medical experts but it also solicits advice from outside experts in emergencies. And many of these experts are under the influence of pharmaceutical manufacturers, according to the aforementioned journalist.
Since there are personnel interchange programs between the WHO and drug manufacturers, the latter can put researchers under their control without the need to buy off WHO officials.
The roots of the WHO date back to the International Office of Public Hygiene created in Paris in 1907. After World War II, the IOPH was reorganized and the WHO was created in 1948 with its headquarters in Geneva as an agency of the United Nations.
With the membership of about 200 countries and staff of around 8,000 working in six administrative districts of the world, the WHO operates on an annual budget of about $2 billion. A quarter of that sum is covered by fixed contributions by the member nations with the remainder provided by donations. Half of the donations come from countries receiving WHO requests for financial help for emergency medical assistance and the rest, amounting to some $700 million, from philanthropic organizations and business corporations.
In 2011, Sonia Shah, an American journalist, accused the WHO of receiving donations from a group composed of business corporations including leading American drug maker Pfizer Inc. and major beverage manufacturer Coca-Cola Co.
According to the aforementioned journalist, who has covered medical scenes involving refugees, these corporations exert influence on the WHO’s policies and decision-making. As a result, the New Yorker magazine says, fighting cholesterol-related problems becomes more important for the WHO even if the world faces 2 million deaths caused by malaria or tuberculosis. Standards related to obesity and cholesterol also reflect the interest of manufacturers of foodstuffs and medicines.
If the Ebola virus spreads further, pharmaceutical companies will make concerted efforts to develop vaccine because it means lucrative business, according to the same journalist.
Should such a situation occur, the WHO would likely repeat what it did with the new type of influenza — recklessly issue pandemic warnings. If Ebola subsides, the whole world will soon forget about it.
Either way, the WHO lacks the ability to take the initiatives that it is supposed to take.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the October issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.