Courtesy of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Outbreak: Ebola, Africa, Dengue Fever, Japan, Chikungunya, Jamaica. We’ve all read the headlines and seen the devastating damage that these “tropical diseases” can wreak on a population. And we’ve also seen how these once remote diseases are creeping across the globe as the bugs know no borders.  
  • Ebola, one of the most terrifying diseases, demonstrated its remarkable ability to spread across countries this year. The outbreak that began in Guinea managed to jump borders into Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, causing many to wonder whether or when it might spread beyond Africa. Several airlines cut flights to some of the highest risk countries for fear the disease could be transported worldwide. WHO and other health experts expressed concerns that 20,000 people may become infected resulting in 10,000 deaths. Lack of health care workers, infrastructure, basic blood and body fluid protective gear and sheer numbers of ill patients are overwhelming the fragile health care systems in the impacted countries.  
  • Dengue Fever affects roughly 400 million people every year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control but millions more are infected. And although it has rarely occurred in the continental United States, it is endemic in many area of Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands where travelers have been reported as contracting this debilitating illness. Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus are the mosquito species which carry the virus. With global warming and global travel, these resilient insects are changing their geographic range by being transported through cargo across the world. Dengue infections are caused by 4 virus types creating a challenge to vaccine makers in creating an effective vaccine. While large outbreaks have occurred in Puerto Rico, Japan reported just last week an outbreak of 70 cases linked to a popular park in Tokyo. 
  • Chikungunya, we don’t even know quite how to say it, but the same mosquito species can carry this virus and infect us causing debilitating high fever, severe joint pain and muscle aches. Outbreaks have occurred in the Caribbean Islands this month with the public health departments reaching out to the community to address the environmental spread of mosquitos. In Florida, the first locally acquired cases were reported in August. Again, there is not effective treatment or vaccine for this infection. 
These examples demonstrate that we no longer live in a world where deadly infectious diseases can be confined to remote locales. Lack of highly protective vaccines or effective treatments makes the management of these diseases essentially palliative care. The public health crisis in the Ebola outbreak has motivated unique approaches to finding effective treatments and vaccines. WHO is considering using survivors’ convalescent serum to boost immune response in ill patients to help them fight the infection. A number of companies have stepped forward with as yet unproved antiviral agents and antibody treatments to be assessed for potential salvage treatments. 

The immediacy of world travel, illegal smuggling, and a global food network make it virtually impossible to quarantine any virus. And although most developed nations are still naive to many of the worst tropical illnesses, it is foolhardy to assume one’s locale or economic status will provide protection. 

Awareness of these diseases should be a rallying point for the biopharma industry to devote more time and resources to treatment modalities or prevention through vaccines for these diseases. It’s time get ahead of the spread of these infections. 

A number of biopharma projects are already underway, including efforts by several pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine against dengue which showed moderate protection in late stage clinical trials

Also, an experimental monoclonal antibody treatment for Ebola was given to several patients recently, but it has not yet been tested in human clinical trials for safety or effectiveness. To that end, the NIH has accelerated experimental vaccine clinical trials in healthy volunteers for Ebola with initial dosing appearing safe in the first subjects. There are promising developments coming forward weekly, and we are seeing an increase in global collaboration in addressing the need for vaccines and treatments for these diseases. 

In Latin America and Asia, Quintiles has conducted 15 vaccine studies in dengue involving approximately 150 sites and 21,000 subjects. Our offices in Africa with local staff allow us to conduct clinical trials in a number of neglected diseases such as malaria and TB. Being aware of local requirements and culture while utilizing the global expertise of Quintiles, has supported out successful delivery. 

Too often “neglected diseases” don’t get enough attention or research, because we are more focused on the health problems that appear closer to home. As recent disease trends have demonstrated, these deadly threats are capable of finding their way around the globe. Investing in solutions today could protect us all in the future. As global public health is important to us all, let’s keep doing “good works”.

Topics in this blog post: Strategic Partnerships, R&D, Emerging Markets
About The Author

Vice President, Allergy, Respiratory, Infectious Diseases and Vaccines