By Jennifer Dent
If rainy season in Southeast Asia comes early—as it has this year and steadily has for the last several—so does the Aedes aegypti mosquito, and the dengue virus it carries. In 2013, severe dengue seized Thailand’s people and strained government resources when the country saw 140,000 dengue cases and 129 deaths, the country’s worst outbreak in decades. In 2014, Japan saw more than 150 infections in its first outbreak of the tropical disease since 1945. This year, as of July 25, Malaysia alone has recorded nearly 70,000 dengue cases and 185 deaths (PDF).
It is true, scientists say, that dengue outbreaks can visit like the weather, in cycles, but over the last several years, dengue—and the need to slow its spread—has attracted more global attention than ever. To be sure, public awareness of pandemic-prone diseases already is high after severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) killed 774 people in the early 2000s and, more recently, when the 2014–2015 outbreak of Ebola virus disease killed 11,296 people in six countries. But new research in 2013 suggested 390 million people are infected with dengue virus each year, which more than triples the World Health Organization’s estimate—illuminating that outbreaks are no longer isolated to specific regions of the globe. Dengue virus is endemic in over 100 countries.
There are vaccines in sight, though. By the end of 2015, the French drug maker Sanofi Pasteur plans to file for vaccine registration
intends to release a vaccine in 20 countries. Takeda Pharmaceuticals is also working on a dengue vaccine, which will look for approval in the United States and Europe for its vaccine by the 2017–18 fiscal year. But a vaccine’s development is never as straightforward as Sanofi Pasteur’s seems: developing and testing a vaccine for a disease that crosses the globe asks for a kind of cooperation between companies and scientists that often crosses the globe as well. While pharmaceutical companies have the assets and expertise needed to discover and develop medicines, they often lack the labyrinthine knowledge of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) essential to discovering treatments. It took Sanofi Pasteur 20 years (PDF) to develop its vaccine. During that time, the company worked with clinics and researchers located throughout South East Asia and Latin America.
It wasn’t always like this. Companies have historically paid little attention to tropical diseases, such as dengue, that mostly affect the poor. Many companies didn’t believe they could bring a drug to the market and still see a financial return on their investment in research and development. That meant a dearth of modern, safe, and effective products for most of the 17 NTDs. It wasn’t until the late 2000s, when more pharmaceutical companies began to see that sharing, rather than protecting, their assets and expertise stimulated innovation, and satisfied their bottom lines.
What we’ve needed, and what we still need, are programs that create effective partnerships. Whether those collaborations are designed to study a pathogen’s drug-resistance, or to build knowledge bases about non-communicable diseases in Africa, we need to advance the essential idea that finding solutions through cooperation streamlines our way to improving global health.
Nonprofits such as BIO Ventures for Global Health exist to satisfy that need by leading initiatives such as WIPO Re:Search, which accelerates, through collaborative research agreements, the development of new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics for NTDs as well as malaria and tuberculosis. Since 2011, BVGH has facilitated over 90 agreements between researchers to share compounds, compound libraries, knowledge, and know-how. With the aim of engaging biopharmaceutical companies in solving global health problems, BVGH works to build capacity, too, in regions where scientists need it the most. BVGH is partnering with AAPS to tap into the broad knowledge-base of its membership to bring AAPS webinars and ecourses to a select number of African universities and research institutions. Without partnerships like these that help us grow and make us more fundamentally efficient, we can’t match NTDs’ pace and reach.
Learn more about the need for these global collaborations by attending the plenary session on Global Health: Tackling the Unmet Medical Needs at the 2015 AAPS Annual Meeting and Exposition. I hope to see you there.
This post was updated on August 21, 2015.