Richard Harris

Imagine a job where about half of all the work is being done by people who are in training. That's, in fact, what happens in the world of biological and medical research.

In the United States, more than 40,000 temporary employees known as postdoctoral research fellows are doing science at a bargain price. And most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don't actually exist.

There's a funding crunch for biomedical research in the United States — and it's not just causing pain for scientists and universities. It's also creating incentives for researchers to cut corners — and that's affecting people who are seriously ill.

The Ebola virus has killed more than 1,300 people in West Africa, but the indirect deaths caused by this epidemic are likely to be far worse. Right now, it's the rainy season. And that means it's high season for malaria.

"Probably 85 percent of the fevers right now are malaria," says Laura Miller, health coordinator in Sierra Leone for the International Rescue Committee. "But more of those cases will go untreated than usual."

When public health officials warn that it's likely to take many months to bring the Ebola outbreak in West Africa under control, it's not because they're facing a single huge challenge.

"If there was just one solid, large chunk we could slice out, we would," says WHO spokeswoman Nyka Alexander, at the agency's regional coordination center in Conakry, Guinea. "But it's so many little things that add up to the outbreak."

Last week we learned that two Americans working in Liberia for a medical charity, Samaritan's Purse, were among those who had contracted Ebola. When their symptoms took a turn for the worse, the organization announced that the two were going to get experimental treatments. One was going to get a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old boy who recovered from the disease, the organization said; the other was to get an "experimental serum." What's that?

In the course of trying to understand a laboratory accident involving anthrax, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stumbled upon another major blunder — involving a deadly flu virus.

A baby who generated great excitement last year because it appeared she had been cured of HIV is infected with the virus after all, health officials say.

This discovery is a setback for the child known as the "Mississippi baby." It also complicates efforts to test what had seemed like a promising new treatment for infants born with HIV.

Scientists cleaning out an old laboratory on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., last week came across a startling discovery: vials labeled "variola" — in other words, smallpox.

Under international convention, there are supposed to be only two stashes of this deadly virus: one at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and another at a similar facility in Russia.

The CDC swooped in to collect the vials and carted them off to a secure lab at its Atlanta headquarters.

Whooping cough was once one of the leading killers of babies around the world. Now that it's largely controlled with a vaccine, scientists have had a chance to figure out how the disease came into being in the first place.

That story is told in a study published online this week in the journal mBio. And it turns out that whooping cough arose quite late in human history.

Most experimental drugs fail before they make it through all the tests required to figure out if they actually work and if they're safe. But some drugs get fairly far down that road, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, based on poorly conducted studies at the outset.

Medical researchers reviewing this sorry state of affairs say the drug-development process needs serious improvement.

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