Research Ethics Blog

Slow progress on Zika vaccine development – and at the expense of Ebola funding?

The Zika Virus – Image by David Goodwill (RCSB Molecule of the Month 197, June 2016)
[CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A recent PBS Newshour story highlights just some of the challenges in getting a vaccine for Zika tested and out on the market. The article confirms that about 30 vaccines are being developed and tested. Currently there is a multi-centre open-label Phase 1 clinical trial underway using the GLS-5700 vaccine, developed by Inovio. The study has been approved not only by the FDA but also by Health Canada, and trial sites include Miami, Philadelphia and Boston.

But the article highlights the challenges of getting vaccines to market, the main one being the incredible time, expertise and costs that testing involves that means few others than the biggest pharmaceutical companies can realistically “get in the game”. As well, the so-called success rates of getting vaccines of this type to market are slim: consider some similar stories of SARS, H1N1, Ebola virus disease and West Nile. In fact, the PBS article suggests that some of the work to develop the Zika virus is being funded in part, by borrowing from funds previously set aside for research and development of an Ebola vaccine and support and rebuilding of Ebola-ravaged areas. With Ebola fading in the memories of policy makers and politicians in terms of urgency and Zika presenting a conceivably more “right now” time-sensitive urgency, it’s easy to see how the attention of those in power would shift quickly. The worry is, of course, that funds taken from one to fund the other, will never be replaced and with another outbreak of Ebola, we may be, in some senses, in a similar place to where we were before – with no viable, safe and effective vaccine and without sufficient rebuilding of necessary public health infrastructure.

In terms of Ebola, “we’re not done,” Dr. Anne Schuchat (Principal Deputy Director of the CDC) said in one interview, “People think we’re done with Ebola, but of course we’re not done.” And with the knowledge that Ebola, in some form, lives on in survivors, it’s realistic to assume that we’ll very likely be dealing with this virus again – in some form. The majority of places most affected by Ebola continue to face serious challenges in rebuilding infrastructure, strengthening public health units, providing assistance to survivors and families and enhancing preventative care and will need continued investment in these areas and more.

As Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell states, “we don’t have the option to set one aside in the name of the other,” calling for full funding for both Zika and Ebola responses.