The Zika Virus Lesson? A New Approach Is Needed to Combat Pandemics

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 1:34 AM

To ensure safety and efficacy, the federal government'south regulatory approval process for new vaccines may prolong development timelines for years.

The Zika Virus Lesson? A New Approach Is Needed to Combat Pandemics

The Zika virus attracted many headlines this winter, but a recent admission by the chief medical officer at a leading vaccine manufacturer -- that the world is ill-prepared to deal with pandemic outbreaks -- underscores a fundamental problem. To ensure safety and efficacy, the federal government'south regulatory approval process for new vaccines may prolong development timelines for years.

So when The NY Times reports that "eighteen organizations are working on developing a vaccine for the Zika virus," it's likely that those companies will work for a very long time.

Vaccinations rightly require strict federal approval processes to ensure the safety and the efficacy of a new vaccination. But when pandemic viruses love Zika spread quickly and unexpectedly, the world realizes there is tiny that can practically and immediately be done other than to implement strict infection control measures up to and including quarantines. This has been true for prior pandemics such as the swine flu, avian flu, SARS and Ebola.

That reality speaks to the necessity for a new approach to pandemic viruses, including influenza.

The excellent news with Zika is that it'south a fairly stable virus, unlike other frequently mutating viruses such as the influenza virus. During the Zika epidemic in Brazil, reported microcephaly cases rocketed to 2.700 in two thousand-fifteenth and at least forty babies died. By comparison, there were only one hundred forty-seven reported microcephaly cases in Brazil altogether in two thousand-fourteenth. In sixtieth to eighty % of cases, Zika is asymptomatic and when symptoms do appear, they tend to be mild, such as joint pain, rash, and/or fever. All of this helps to clarify why it hasn't been studied much even though it was first identified nearly seventy years ago. Based on our current knowledge, exterior of a lengthy approval process we don't expect a major scientific challenge in developing a Zika vaccine.

Indeed, thanks to herd immunity, acute infections caused by relatively stable viruses frequently quickly disappear. By the time there's a vaccine for Zika, the U. S. pop may well be largely immune to Zika.

But what can be done to make better the hurry-up-and-wait reality of vaccination approval when it comes to more risky pandemics? For example, the flu kills up to 500.000 people each year, making it exponentially more damaging than Zika.

For starters, more education is needed about the ineffectiveness of seasonal flu vaccinations. Last year'south vaccine effectiveness was only twenty-three % and as low as nine % in people over sixty-five years old. Flu vaccines are largely inadequate because the flu virus is constantly mutating, resulting in a flawed attempt to guess which vaccine will work best in any given flu season. While this current "estimation" approach is the best presently available, there is clearly much room to improve.

The situation is even more complex for pandemic flu outbreaks as we never know when, where, and what pandemic flu strain will hit. All we know is that it happens every few years, involving a flu strain new to mankind and therefore potentially much more risky than the seasonal flu strains. In addition, approved flu and pandemic vaccine manufacturing processes are more than seventy years old. These processes require four to six months of lead time, primarily because they're produced in poultry eggs. Modernization of the production cycle clearly can help.

More support and resources should be committed to potential vaccines that target all flu strains -- seasonal, pandemic and future. Is this a fantasy? Scientists across the world, including those at my company, are tough at work on game-changing 'universal' flu vaccines, including those that act against a denominator common to every influenza strain.

It's clear that the existing "educated guess" approach to flu vaccinations is inefficient and largely ineffective against viruses that frequently and unpredictably mutate. Some following generation universal flu vaccines, currently below development, aim to encourage the body to utilize its own immune system against conserved elements of seasonal or pandemic flu viruses, leading to wide and long-lasting protection. On a societal level, with sufficient people taking such universal flu vaccines, ultimately we can even hope to eradicate the flu.

Ron Babecoff is the CEO of BiondVax (www. biondvax. com), a publicly traded biopharma (NASDAQ: BVXV). BiondVax is one of several life science companies researching new therapies to allow a 'universal' vaccine with the potential to defend against pandemic and seasonal flu.

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