Brain and Body

Scientists “Rescuing” Developing Countries From Disease Outbreaks May Actually Be Harmful

April 13, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

NHS doctors and nurses practise medical care in full protective Ebola gear
Photo credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Global health officials say “parachute research” and “biopiracy” has to stop.

When there’s a terrifying disease outbreak in a part of the developing world, like the Ebola epidemic, for instance, we often hear about heroic scientists swooping in to save the day by developing new treatments or vaccines.

Unfortunately, new research suggests that these acts of heroism may actually be harmful, and a leading group of global health officials and international researchers are calling for an end to what they call “parachute research.”

Effectively, critics say “parachute researchers” are scientists from wealthy nations who fly in when a puzzling disease outbreak occurs in a developing country, collect specimens, and then head straight back to their disease-free homes to analyze them.

As Nurith Aizenman at NPR reports, “They don't coordinate with people fighting the epidemic on the ground — don't even share their discoveries for months, if ever.” Many of them simply have intentions to win a Nobel prize or rake in the cash with a copyrighted new treatment or vaccine.

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Further, one of the biggest problems of parachute research is that once scientists find solutions, they’ll sell treatments back to the developing country at an unaffordable price — an act known as “biopiracy.”

Further, some scientists don’t immediately share their findings because they want to publish their results, and many medical journals prefer exclusives.

In fact, experts say this is exactly what happened during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Once word of the rapidly spreading disease broke the news, a team of scientists rushed off to Guinea and were able to rapidly sequence the genetic code of the first Ebola virus samples.

Aizenman reports that those sequences were immediately made public, but after that — nothing. Many other scientists swooped into West Africa to conduct research, but critics argue that they held off on releasing their findings because they were waiting for the research to be published in prestigious scientific journals.

"There were many months in which no new Ebola sequences came out,” one of the scientists on the team who did publish their work, Nathan Yozwiak of Harvard University, told NPR. “Those were the critical periods in which you were seeing the most cases across West Africa — and yet the fewest amount of sequence data.”

Now, researchers and health officials are desperately working towards policy change that will ensure we don’t see these same problems with the current Zika outbreak.

Back in February, the world’s top public health organizations, scientists, and journals — including the National Institute of Health, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and leading scientific journals like Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine signed a pledge that solidified they would do all in their power to “ensure that any information that might have value in combatting the Zika outbreak is made available to the international community, free of charge, as soon as is feasibly possible.”

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Dr. David Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, admits that he can understand some of the incentives that keep researchers from sharing data: “I myself have been guilty of parachute research in the past," he says.

However, he’s now one of the torchbearers behind the movement against parachute research as chair of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergency committee on Zika.

"If you want really to have a rapid public health response you have to make sure that that data is available as soon as it's known," says Heymann. "And that means in the country.”

WHO also issued a statement back in September, affirming that “timely and transparent pre-publication sharing of data and results during public health emergencies must become the global norm.”

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in London, which was one of the organizations that signed the above-mentioned pledge, told Science, “It’s extremely heartening to see so many leading international organizations united in this unprecedented commitment to open science, reinforcing the decision by the WHO to declare Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

Hopefully all of these commendable efforts by leaders in the scientific community will lead us to a swift, openly shared solution to the Zika epidemic and pave the way for future disease outbreak responders to do the same.

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