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How can U.S. better respond to infectious disease?

Yessica Flores, who tested positive for the Zika virus and was 24 weeks pregnant, talks to reporters at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Allapattah, Fla., in October. The virus can cause devastating birth defects.
Yessica Flores, who tested positive for the Zika virus and was 24 weeks pregnant, talks to reporters at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Allapattah, Fla., in October. The virus can cause devastating birth defects. Miami Herald

Infectious diseases have afflicted humanity for centuries – the plague in the mid-1400s, cholera in the 1820s, polio in the early 1900s and AIDS in the 1980s. While modern scientific advances have given us tools to respond to diseases much faster, making many of them preventable or treatable, the 21st century is no stranger to pandemics such as West Nile, SARS and Ebola.

It hit close to home this summer when a mosquito-borne virus, Zika, infected more than 30,000 people in the U.S. with no vaccines or cures readily available. Although the World Health Organization downgraded the threat of Zika, its rapid spread and its devastating birth defects rapidly turned the outbreak into a major public health crisis.

Yet, Congress was unable to quickly finance a response, leaving public health agencies operating at less than full strength for eight months and raising a fundamental question: How can the U.S. better respond to emerging infectious diseases?

Government, academia and industry must prioritize collaboration and speedy decision-making. The federal government’s role is to identify threats, spearhead basic research efforts and ensure that life-saving products are efficiently distributed. The private sector should focus on researching and producing critical new medicines, diagnostic tests and vaccines.

If the congressional piece of the puzzle does not snap into place, it prevents agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health from working nimbly to address public health threats. It also has a ripple effect on the larger life-sciences community, which relies on the government to accelerate research, development and manufacturing.

Fortunately, private industry and research institutions were quick to respond to the Zika outbreak, especially in California. For example, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, were the first to demonstrate that the Brazilian strain of Zika caused the devastating birth defects and to explain how the virus might damage developing brain cells. Researchers at La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and at Rockefeller University in New York showed that the Zika virus in animals infects adult brain stem cells the same way as fetal brain stem cells, suggesting possible damage to adult learning and memory.

In the private sector, Inovio Pharmaceuticals in San Diego has begun two early-stage human studies for a potential new DNA-based Zika vaccine. Other companies are also conducting preclinical studies of potential vaccines. On the diagnostic side, the Food and Drug Administration has authorized accelerated tests that detect viral genetic material in humans.

While California is well-positioned to become a world leader in preventing, diagnosing and curing current and future infectious diseases, such medical breakthroughs are dependent on the federal government quickly and efficiently responding to emergencies. Today, we are lacking in this area, an unfortunate reminder that Washington’s gridlock impedes the work of researchers, our preparedness for health threats and our country’s ability to remain a world leader in biomedical innovation.

Joseph Panetta is president and CEO of Biocom, a San Diego-based advocacy group for California’s life-sciences industry. He can be contacted at JPanetta@biocom.org.

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