Is Ebola Vaccine-Resistant?

Ebola vaccine 1The Freudian unconscious also has a formal aspect and is not merely a matter of content: recall the cases where Freud interprets a dream so that what is repressed/excluded from its content returns as a feature of the form of the dream…the true secret of the dream is not its content…but the form itself. –Slavoj Žižek (2014)

News of Ebola in West Africa is ping ponging between joyous declarations the outbreak is over to abashed announcements of its return.

One is reminded of the Onion‘s farcical September 1939 front page: “WA-“. Both a denouement denied and, in the other direction, the return of the repressed.

Our group’s latest commentary, just published online in the International Journal of Health Services, a review and extension of previous work, proposes an explanation for the never-quite-ending outbreak,

[R]egional neoliberalism may affix the stochastic ‘friction’ of ecological relationships imposed by the forest across populations, which, when above a threshold, keeps the virus from lining up transmission above replacement. Export-led logging, mining, and intensive agriculture may depress such functional noise, permitting novel spillovers [across species] larger forces of infection. Mature outbreaks, meanwhile, can continue to circulate even in the face of efficient vaccines.

What up until now has been a focus on emergency measures sunders epidemiology into a false dichotomy,

[C]ommoditizing the forest may have lowered the region’s ecosystemic threshold to such a point that no emergency intervention can drive the Ebola outbreak low enough to burn out on its own. Novel spillovers suddenly express larger forces of infection. On the other end of the epicurve, a mature outbreak continues to circulate, with the potential to intermittently rebound. In short, neoliberalism’s structural shifts are no mere background on which the emergency of Ebola takes place. The shifts are the emergency as much as the virus itself.

A working vaccine, reported this summer, may act the means by which to avoid addressing this broader context. “Concepts of pathogen biology,” we continue,

can act as both a spur to and a brake upon new interventions in public health. Unwittingly or not, the new Ebola vaccine is presently applied as much as a proverbial inoculation against discussing the problems of neoliberalism’s impacts upon deadly pathogens as it is a welcome addition to public health’s arsenal. At bottom, the two conditions are a false equivalence in practice and proposition. Blocking Ebola with a vaccine does not make the social context driving Ebola’s circulation disappear. Indeed, ignoring the latter condition increases the likelihood the vaccine will fail at any number of levels, from the molecular to the socioeconomic.

That is to say, economics, epidemiology and epistemology have congealed into a composite object,

The more socioecologically complex pathogens can evolve into population states that even the most well-intentioned researchers fail to parse, if by dint of the demands of research and development alone. Models of biology and the economic doctrine under which they are produced are often tightly intertwined, down to their mathematical formalisms. Many pathogens, meanwhile, plot their own paths, deriving solutions to interventions at one level of biocultural organization with adaptations at another. As a result, pathogen evolution routinely fails to cooperate with market expectations and scientific hypotheses alike.

The gap in understanding why Ebola rebounds in West Africa appears a lucrative and carefully cultivated disassociation.


Wallace RG, R Kock, L Bergmann, M Gilbert, L Hogerwerf, C Pittiglio, R Mattioli and R Wallace (2015) Did neoliberalizing West African forests produce a new niche for Ebola? International Journal of Health Services. Published online before print November 17, 2015, doi: 10.1177/0020731415611644.

Anyone unable to download the PDF may contact us for a copy.

2 Responses to “Is Ebola Vaccine-Resistant?”

  1. Interesting. And not entirely unexpected in a Red Queen vision of biology. But there is one phrase you quote here that I wonder about:

    Many pathogens, [meanwhile, plot their own paths,] deriving solutions to interventions at one level of biocultural organization with adaptations at another.

    The phrase in brackets… I am surprised your editors didn’t complain, or if they did you were able to keep it in. If I change ‘deriving’ to derive and take out the words in the bracket I get the same sense without making the suggestion the pathogens are plotting… are somehow planning, rather than merely stochastically changing and in an environment where sufficient hosts exist combinations arise that work for them.

    I think the whole is scary enough without attributing to the pathogen abilities not in evidence.

    Still though… very interesting.

  2. Thanks, Clem, I appreciate the comment.

    I could punt on ‘plot’. I could say I meant plotting as in mapping, or being mapped, across a phenotypic space, or, given the parallax background described here, across epidemiological circumstance.

    Or I could say, yes, ‘plotting’ is an anthropomorphism common in evolutionary biology. It’s just a shorthand for the design without a designer, as Francisco Ayala puts it, at the heart of evolution by natural selection.

    But what if a sense of planning was exactly our intent? Clearly pathogens–individually, as infections, and at the population level–embody no consciousness. They do, however, engage in cognition, ‘choosing’ across epigenetic expression depending on circumstance. It’s that alien sense of agency–no mere reflex–I’ve repeatedly tried to get across in multiple posts: e.g.,

    Although much of what we explore here describes the means and modes by which pathogens evolve in response to our agroeconomics, path-dependent epigenetics and niche construction, the latter the capacity to shape the environment in which one evolves, aren’t limited to multicellular biota.

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