Nurses wearing protective suits escort a man infected with the ebola virus to a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, 25 August. Photo: Getty
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Why releasing untested ebola drugs was the right thing to do

Drug trials rarely tell the whole story as many drugs have side effects that emerge only after deployment in the population at large. Yet unexpected effects can sometimes be surprisingly good.

Scientists do the best they can, but no drug is properly tested until it is fully deployed. And sometimes the result is better than anyone could have hoped.

In all the hand-wringing over whether it was right to release untested drugs to treat ebola victims, an important truth has gone largely unreported: even when completed, drug trials rarely tell the whole story. Many drugs have side effects that emerge only after deployment in the population at large. If you want proof, look at the millions of reports of adverse effects on the US Food and Drug Administration’s new OpenFDA website.

It’s worth noting, however, that unexpected effects can sometimes be surprisingly good. Take BCG. The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccination was designed to protect against tuberculosis but it does far more. It stimulates an immune reaction against bladder cancer, for instance – the vaccine, delivered directly into the bladder, is now a standard treatment for this disease. It has also been used to fight multiple sclerosis and diabetes. No one knows exactly why this immunity-boosting effect takes place.

Other vaccines also have unexpected protective effects. Studies have shown that, when deployed in Africa, the measles vaccine cuts deaths from diseases other than measles by a third. The way it stimulates the immune system seems to enhance the body’s defence against infections. As a result, pneumonia, sepsis and diarrhoea – the most common causes of death in developing countries – are reduced by vaccinating against a completely unrelated disease.

We have known this for a while. In the early 20th century a physician logged the survival rates of children when vaccination was introduced to Sweden. Even though tuberculosis mostly kills older children, the vaccination had an effect on babies, too: those who had received it stood a much higher chance of reaching their first birthday. Follow-up trials in the US and UK in the 1940s and 1950s suggested that BCG-vaccinated children had a 25 per cent lower death rate from diseases unconnected to tuberculosis.

More recent studies have shown that vaccines for both smallpox and BCG can reduce susceptibility to lymphoma, leukaemia and asthma. Some researchers suggest that the rise in allergies and asthma in developed countries might be linked to the phasing out of the BCG vaccines.

There are still improvements to be made. This year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced that it is looking into tweaking the sequence in which certain vaccines are administered in developing countries, after a team of experts concluded that the way they interact might be having an adverse effect on girls’ health.

It is not the first time that gender-specific effects have been noted after vaccination. In 1992, WHO withdrew a high-dose measles vaccine that had been shown to increase girls’ susceptibility to infection. No one is advocating that we drop any vaccinations – they save far more lives than they put at risk. But just changing the order in which they are given might help them save even more lives.

In the messy world of pharmaceuticals, nothing is ever certain. Whatever the outcome, releasing the untested ebola drugs was the right thing to do. In a crisis, we sometimes have to jump and hope for the best. Or maybe even better. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.