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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Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.