All told, we got kind of lucky with the Zika epidemic. When a virus pops up in an area for the first time it’s pretty scary since no one around has pre-existing immunity, as happened in Brazil in 2016. But the threat from that outbreak has now largely passed, at least in terms of being an urgent global health emergency (we still need to keep it on our radars.) But the WHO is now concerned about a new rare virus much scarier than Zika. The Nipah virus has begun to spread in Kerala, India, and has unfortunately killed 17 victims out of 18 confirmed cases. Its source seems to be fruit bats, which some movie aficionados may remember as the source for the eponymous contagion from 2011’s Contagion. Also, there’s no vaccine or cure yet. So that’s fun.
We’ve done a full 360 on Zika. In early 2016, the WHO declared Zika to be a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” Less than two years later we’re just injecting it into brains willy-nilly to see what it does. To be fair, it does seem to kill glioblastomas pretty effectively, so we’ll give mad scientists a pass this time. Still, the Zika crisis did seem to peter out quickly in the Americas, at least quicker than US government investors expected. Without any real epidemic threat from the virus forthcoming, funding for the government and Sanofi’s vaccine development partnership has dried up. There are still two vaccine candidates from GSK and Takeda in development, but the decision has been criticized as short-sighted.
It was all the rage a few years ago. Well, it is still out there. However, researchers at Arizona State University might have found a breakthrough that would allow your pregnant friend to travel to your destination wedding in South America. The ASU researchers are developing an injection targeting part of the Zika viral protein called DIII, which plays a key role in how the virus infects people. That’s the good news. The bad news is your wedding might have to be put on hold for a while as researchers expect to start Phase I testing in a couple years. For a look back at the terror Zika created, see this. So, until a vaccine or treatment is approved, keep the Off or Cutter handy. Help could be on the way.
Just days after declaring his administration would throw law enforcement resources at the opioid crisis, The Donald referred to the crisis as a national emergency. According to an article by NPR, that stops juuuust a bit short of an official declaration of emergency status, which would carry with it access to specific legal authorities and access to government coffers for a more wide-spread, wholistic approach to dealing with the crisis. The President has indicated the official designation is forthcoming. This is significant. National emergency status has historically been used for things like natural disasters (i.e., hurricanes) and communicable diseases (i.e., the Zika virus). Here’s a list of declared U.S. public health emergencies. Once official, expect states like Ohio and New Hampshire—among the hardest hit—to seek federal funds for help.
Several companies, including large pharma, came running to the call for a Zika vaccine. Purely philanthropic, you may think. Perhaps. But also for a slice of what could be a billion dollar pie. That’s right, it’s nearly unheard of for a vaccine against mosquito-borne viruses to hit blockbuster status, but according to Joseph Kim, CEO of Inovio, (who is leading the pack in developing a Zika vaccine) the potential to exceed $1B per year is there. And that’s the estimate with just US travelers. To paraphrase FDR, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And not capturing the first mover advantage on a Zika vaccine.”
The F.D.A. made an urgent call for Zika screenings throughout all US blood banks, translating to an annual average of 14 million units of blood to be tested or decontaminated by new screening technologies. Given a window of 1-3 months for total implementation, banks are in for it this fall. A tall order? For sure. Necessary? Duh, consider that Zika can be spread through sexual transmission, no mosquito required. Or the unsettlingly high number of donors in Puerto Rico testing positive. Or the >16,000 cases on US soil alone. Or that we can keep going, but there’s a character limit on this post. Within months, we can hopefully rest assured that blood banks will be safer places, apart from the treachery of that one phlebotomist who can’t find your vein.
The Zika virus has crossed the U.S. southern border and will soon be taking jobs away from American viruses. With Zika now active in the U.S., and not just from travelers abroad, the search intensifies for a vaccine to prevent the spread. A new category of therapies, DNA vaccines, appears all the rage. It’s new because no DNA vaccine has ever been approved for sale. DNA vaccine trials are currently underway by the NIH, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, and GeneOne Life Science. Still barely interested in Zika? Here’s NASA’s forecast for its spread in the U.S. Or maybe you’re not worried because you live in Europe? Well then, here’s a fun read. You’re welcome.