By Michael O. Leavitt
The late Neil Armstrong once said, "Research is creating new knowledge."
In recent years, the world has witnessed unprecedented medical advances that have forever changed how we research and treat debilitating diseases. For example, new discoveries in the field of immunotherapy are helping scientists rethink their approach to cancer. Hepatitis C, which had a cure rate of 40 to 50 percent just five years ago, is curable in nine out of 10 patients today. Even diseases like cystic fibrosis, which deprive most patients of living past their late 20s, are seeing new treatments after decades of having none.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Zika virus, which has been largely foreign to U.S. researchers. Despite its existence for more than 50 years, we're starting from scratch. As private industry has demonstrated in its quick action, we have no choice but to create new knowledge.
The virus is primarily spread through mosquito bites and, while tests are ongoing, it is believed to cause microcephaly in infants (a condition that causes them to be born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development). Although the virus is rightfully raising alarm across the globe, Zika gives scientists, researchers, and governments the opportunity to gain a clear understanding of what it will take to fully develop a vaccine and subsequent treatments.
Herein lies the challenge that we must address if we are to prevent the next crisis: Given the number of recent successes in modern medicine, we often expect near-term solutions. With Zika (and many other diseases that won't get the same level of focus or attention), this simply is not possible. Quick solutions are just the opposite of how we've arrived at the breakthroughs in cancer, hepatitis C, cystic fibrosis, and other conditions.
To effectively fight disease, we must amend a belief held by many that drug development is seamless and driven in large part by more funding for government research. Neither is the case.
In short, developing a new treatment is an economically challenging, lengthy, and uncertain process; on average, it costs $2.9 billion to develop a new drug and takes more than 10 years to reach the marketplace. That's if the drug makes it. Vaccine development in particular is risky, and that's why we have so few on the marketplace today. In contrast to treatments for Ebola, the flu, and pneumonia, we are nowhere near a breakthrough for Zika.
A vaccine will take innovation and ingenuity, collaboration between the public and private sectors, and time.
The National Institutes of Health announced that it is accelerating research and looking into clinical trials. Similarly, biopharmaceutical companies have announced Zika initiatives. However, public- and private-sector funds alone will not be Zika's silver bullet - we must rethink how we approach and value vaccinations broadly, especially when we're starting from the very beginning. Fortunately, the biopharmaceutical sector has provided great promise in finding cures for infectious diseases like Zika.
The United States is on the brink of many breakthroughs, and vaccines play a critically important role in staying one step ahead of disease. There will be another Zika virus, future Ebola outbreaks, and new diseases that will pose challenges in the United States and overseas. Pandemics are not new to the world, and every outbreak is a reminder of what is at stake.
If past epidemics have taught us anything, it is that we need to recognize viruses and ensure that we are doing the legwork years - often decades - in advance to prevent and contain them. We must regularly watch for signals of change, validate our assumptions, assess our capabilities with key stakeholders, and prioritize and effectively communicate plans to close preparedness gaps. Ultimately, we must remain steadfast in our efforts to keep the country safe and focus on laying the foundation that shows we value research and development in vaccines.
Above all, we must set aside the notion that it's an easy process that government can drive alone. Zika is the perfect example of why it's time we had a candid discussion about what it takes, how long it takes, and how we amass knowledge that will lead to faster innovation and a new wave of breakthroughs.