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The Outbreaks Are Here, Where’s Our Response Plan?

Opinion

Xconomy Seattle — 

The news of the first Zika case in Pierce County—the 14th in Washington State—reminds us that the spread of disease is inevitable. While we don’t have in our region the kind of mosquito that transmits Zika, the latest infected patient returned from a visit to Puerto Rico. Thanks to modern travel, whether by mosquitoes or infected humans, only a unique environmental factor could contain a disease where it started. If we know that a virus exists in a certain area, we should take it as a given that it could appear anywhere.

Given the certainty that disease will spread, there are a number of things we must do to be ready:

Having a response system in place is of utmost importance—for the safety of people everywhere. Here in the United States, we can no longer assume these infectious diseases are not a problem for Americans. Not only did Ebola and Zika virus make their way rapidly onto U.S. soil, but ancient diseases like leprosy are creeping up in numbers here as well. When the headlines fade, it’s easy to forget why we need a system at the ready; each of us has a responsibility to keep this topic top of mind for our public health policy makers.

  • We must continue research. When people question the importance of funding little-known diseases or ones that are not perceived as a threat to the developed world, they need look no further than Zika, Dengue Fever, and Ebola to understand why this type of research is incredibly vital to the well being of humankind. We must first understand the basic biology of these infectious agents and how they spread, in order to be prepared.
  • We must continue funding. As funding cycles ebb and flow, from sources like the National Institutes of Health and private foundations, we must be mindful that funding for disease research and product development is mandatory for us to be ready to protect ourselves.
  • We must develop vaccines in a different way. Current methods of vaccine development—which take large amounts of time and money—don’t work when a speedy response is of the utmost importance; scientists are hobbled by the time table of the human immune system. We need to find new ways to develop vaccines quickly and cost-effectively.

All these elements provide the basis for rapid response, but how do we execute the plan when the outbreak is upon us?

This requires another paradigm shift. Instead of producing vaccines in rich countries and struggling to ship enough to protect the entire world, we need to help develop vaccines in the countries where they are needed most.

One way is to share important technology. As part of a project funded by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, IDRI is partnering with developing country vaccine manufacturers to vastly improve their ability to respond quickly during an influenza outbreak. BARDA and the World Health Organization identified institutes in developing countries that are able to make influenza vaccines, and IDRI provides the technologies for adjuvants, which are added to a vaccine to increase the body’s immune response. This new approach to making vaccine technology available to developing countries means a rapid response to an outbreak where it’s needed most.

Another way is to build new companies in countries where disease is endemic. This serves the dual purpose of developing vaccine technologies on site and providing the catalyst for new industries that can offer training and employment. With an investment from the South African government, IDRI has formed a company called Afrigen Biologics, which is dedicated to the local development and production of vaccines of critical importance to Africa, including tuberculosis and HIV. This also provides a platform for rapid scale-up of vaccine development in case of outbreak. This is a model that can be replicated in other parts of the world, if companies are willing to share their expertise.

We must be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to global health. We cannot wait for Zika to abate and then make a plan for the next infectious disease. By then, it will be too late.