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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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