An outsider studying the processes of knowledge production and biomedical and biotechnological innovation in the United States and the European Union. Part 1: The fear of Ebola fever.

In this blog I am going to post a series of reflections on how a vision from the global south can be useful to improve and democratize biomedical innovation processes in the United States and Europe. In part 1, I present a study on the structure of Ebola research.
Published in Microbiology
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During my PhD, while I was working on other topics, the Ebola Epidemic of 2014-2016 took place. With previous experience of having worked with neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), I was struck by the case of a neglected health problem with so much media coverage and mentions in the speeches of political leaders and decision makers. Hence, I asked myself how the processes of translation of biomedical knowledge into clinical knowledge and innovation have taken place in the case of Ebola fever and what political-cultural factors could be affecting said trajectory? To do this, I carried out a study that combines qualitative analysis of journalistic and institutional information with network analysis, text mining and semantic analysis of papers and patents related to Ebola.[1]

What I found was a reductionist research structure in which the flow of knowledge starts from a cluster of clinical-epidemiological research that describes the problem, towards research at the tissue-cellular level, and then towards biomolecular research which explains the disease and suggest therapeutic interventions, this last level being reflected in the content of patent networks. One of the most interesting aspects of this study was the leadership of the US military both in the generation of scientific knowledge (papers) and in the innovation process (the central assignee in the patent network). Here is the central structure of Ebola research until 2014:

Main interactions among the Ebola research fronts. [1]

Seeing these results, I asked myself in an exploratory way what elements of the cultural and political context of the United States could explain why such a reductionist research and innovation structure whose efforts are led by a military institution. It must be taken into account that Ebola is in many ways a neglected tropical disease (NTD), a health problem that affects the poor in the global south, whose epidemiology is largely explained by social and environmental determinants [2], and which would be in a greater state of neglect if it were not for the fact that it is seen as a threat to national security [3]. The review of news media information and academic literature suggests that in addition to a national security logic in Ebola research, there is also a racist component. Fear of the bodies of the global south that may carry lethal and dangerous diseases like Ebola.

Five years after conducting this research, I believe the US military could have done things much better. The US military could have consulted the national authorities and the population in the affected countries about the most appropriate type of technology to develop to address the issue. This institution could have used its prestige in American society to reverse social phobias towards migrants and visitors from Africa. It could also have informed its politicians and society at large that the fight against the social and environmental determinants of the disease and a more just and supportive relationship with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa are also a matter of strategic national interest. Even today, with the development of treatments and vaccines, there is plenty of room for maneuver where things can be done much better.

The manuscript was positively evaluated by the peer reviewers and has received methodological citations, given the innovation, at that time, of combining various methods of analysis of papers and patents. However, the study has not received the same level of attention from the innovation and health policy community. Possibly because the results were published in a medical journal, due to a possible lack of clarity in the social and policy aspects of the study or perhaps because of the little authority on the subject that could be attributed to the foreign authors who wrote the paper. I invite you to read it and form your own opinion.

References

  1. Fajardo-Ortiz, D., Ortega-Sánchez-de-Tagle, J. & Castaño, V.M. Hegemonic structure of basic, clinical and patented knowledge on Ebola research: a US army reductionist initiative. J Transl Med 13, 124 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12967-015-0496-y
  2. Troncoso A. Ebola outbreak in West Africa: a neglected tropical disease. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine. 2015 Apr 1;5(4):255-9.
  3. Strauss S. Ebola research fueled by bioterrorism threat. Canadian Medical Association. Journal. 2014 Nov 4;186(16):1206.

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