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Tackling Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Challenges and Advancements

OCT 23, 2017 | JARED KALTWASSER
Emerging Diseases Make Headlines & Receive Vaccine Funding

If HIV has gotten less attention, other infectious diseases have had the opposite treatment. Viruses like Ebola and Zika have garnered widespread media coverage as outbreaks in the southern hemisphere have stoked public fears. All that attention has translated into additional funding for vaccines.

For instance, a National Institutes of Health-funded phase 2 trial of a Zika virus vaccine will launch soon in countries affected by the virus. George Washington University will lead the effort at one of the sites in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

In an email, GWU School of Medicine and Health Sciences professors Jeffrey Bethony, PhD, and David Diemert, MD, said development of a Zika vaccine has been relatively swift in the wake of the 2015 outbreak in Brazil. 

“The reasons for this are multiple, but definitely there has been significant interest and support given to the vaccine development efforts due to the epidemic nature of the recent outbreak in the Americas and the potential negative impact on developing fetuses if women are infected during pregnancy,” Drs. Bethony and Diemert wrote in an email interview.

According to the researchers, the development process has also been helped by research into other tropical diseases. For instance, the platform technology used to develop the vaccine was a modified version of a platform initially developed by the NIH to create a virus against West Nile virus.

The aforementioned Zika vaccine is a DNA vaccine, which researchers believe will be safer for pregnant women compared to a live attenuated viral vaccine, which could pose a higher risk to fetuses. Zika caused relatively minor symptoms in most adults but led to microcephaly in fetuses.

“In addition to this potential advantage over a live attenuated vaccine, a DNA vaccine can also be quickly produced given previous experience with other, similar viruses, and therefore could get into clinical trials quite quickly,” Drs. Bethony and Diemert said. “The faster that a vaccine can be developed, the faster that it could be used to protect people at risk.”

Dr. Kinch applauds funding for programs like the Zika vaccine. He said the government plays an important role in providing funding for emerging infectious diseases since doing research in advance can help public health officials get a head start on potential pandemics. He’s dismayed at funding cuts to the NIH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re less prepared now to deal with an emerging pandemic than we’ve been in a while,” Dr. Kinch said.



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