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National Collaboration Continues in the Fight Against Zika—Is it Enough?

As cases of Zika infection continue to increase, the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services have ramped up funding and collaborative efforts in affected regions.

US governmental agencies continue to foster public and private partnerships in the battle against Zika virus infection.

With more than 45 localized cases of the mosquito-borne virus already reported in Florida and projections that mosquitos carrying the virus could soon appear in states across the southeast, as well as more than 2,500 travel-related and sexually transmitted cases nationally, the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) have ramped up funding and collaborative efforts in affected regions. The hope is that these efforts will help contain and/or prevent outbreaks.

On August 24, for example, the CDC announced that it has provided $6.8 million in funding to national public health partners as part of efforts designed to assist state, tribal, local, and territorial jurisdictions with Zika response. Funded programs include those involving disease “surveillance and epidemiology, vector control, communication and outreach to pregnant women and vulnerable populations, and planning with key stakeholders.” Among the groups to receive funding were the American Public Health Association, the Asian and Pacific Islanders American Health Forum, the March of Dimes Foundation, the National Association of Community Health Centers, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the National Indian Health Board, the National Network of Public Health Institutes, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the American College of Preventive Medicine, and the Task Force for Global Health.

“This funding will help enhance surge capacity for Zika case identification and mosquito surveillance,” the CDC said in a media release. “It will also help improve communications to key populations, by developing focused educational materials, sharing mosquito control guidance, and refining community public awareness campaigns.”

The new funding comes on the heels of $1.6 million in monies earmarked for Zika response work the CDC awarded to national partners earlier this year. To date, as part of the anti-Zika fight, the CDC has awarded more than $100 million to states, cities, and territories. In July, the agency awarded $25 million through the Public Health Preparedness and Response cooperative agreement to help strengthen preparedness and response plans and nearly $60 million through the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity cooperative agreement to strengthen epidemiology and lab capacity, and mosquito control and surveillance efforts. Earlier in August, it awarded $16.4 million to help states establish birth defect surveillance to rapidly detect microcephaly and other adverse outcomes caused by Zika.

The DHHS, meanwhile, announced earlier this month that it has signed a $2.6 million agreement with DiaSorin Group to lead efforts to develop a Zika virus test that may help physicians determine more quickly whether a patient has been infected. The Italian company has spearheaded development of an automated laboratory serological test using its LIAISON XL system, which can test up to 120 samples simultaneously and generate results within an hour.

“The contract supports the development of the diagnostic test, design improvements that may be needed, manufacturing preparations, and clinical trials” as part of the US Food and Drug Administration approval process, according to a DHHS statement announcing the collaboration.

ublic health experts have been urging such public-private partnerships, particularly as funding for anti-Zika initiatives has been stalled in Congress for months. To date, the DHHS has reportedly “repurposed” $374 million from other programs to fund domestic Zika preparedness and response activities, including efforts to develop vaccines, diagnostic tools, and vector control programs.

“It is very expensive to maintain an active research program for all the different viruses that affect humans, and the costs of testing a vaccine and getting one approved for human use are huge,” John A. Lednicky, PhD, associate professor for Environmental and Global Health in the College of Public Health and Health Professions at the University of Florida told Contagion recently. Dr. Lednicky has been active in Zika-related response efforts as the outbreak in Florida expands.

“So who should bear the costs for vaccine production, especially when ‘experts’ disagree over the true threat posed by Zika (the disease) to humans?” he continued. “Over-expenditure for the development of drugs or vaccines could bankrupt a company. This is a world issue. An international coalition, maybe headed by the World Health Organization, could put together permanent research teams to specialize in the development of countermeasures against emerging or re-emerging viruses. The research teams would be government-funded, perhaps by the United Nations. Ultimately, it is necessary to get multinational involvement and commitment for this.”

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.