Biodefense Panel concerned as Zika, avian flu expand their reach toward U.S.

Zika VirusBiodefense Panel concerned as Zika, avian flu expand their reach toward U.S.

Published 1 February 2016

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense responded last week with what it described as “serious concerns” over two emerging infectious diseases that now threaten the United States — Zika virus and avian influenza.

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense responded last week with what it described as “serious concerns” over two emerging infectious diseases that now threaten the United States — Zika virus and avian influenza.

Former senator Joseph I. Lieberman, co-chair of the Panel, stated, “We are seeing a pattern of viruses emerge in one part of the world and make their way across the globe. The aggressive surveillance and public education that CDC and global health authorities are undertaking with respect to Zika is encouraging. But the reality is that we still lack rapid diagnostics, vaccines, or treatments. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has aggressively monitored Midwest poultry farms for avian flu, which could cross to humans, and its vigilance seems to be paying off in terms of limiting the number of farms affected. But the vaccine developed at great cost in response to the 2015 outbreak was meant for an entirely different strain. We do not yet know if this vaccine will work in this outbreak, and meanwhile the only option is quarantine and animal depopulation.”

The Panel’s October 2015 report found that a lack of biodefense innovation in many areas, including medical countermeasure development, is keeping the United States behind and compromising public health security (see “Centralized leadership, major reform needed to bolster U.S. biodefense,” HSNW, 30 October 2015). Governor Tom Ridge, who also chairs the Panel, added, “We raised the alarm on shifting avian flu strains last year. We proposed a paradigm shift away from lengthy development and manufacturing processes, and instead toward platforms and other advanced technologies that will enable rapid development. We cannot be caught without adequate tools to handle what is shaping up to be a long fight against emerging infectious disease. Human and animal populations continue to be exposed and we need to share technologies and knowledge to make this possible. We also found that the United States needs to lead the way toward a functional global health response apparatus; we cannot allow these or other emerging infections to become out of hand like Ebola did.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued travel alerts for South America, Central America, and the Caribbean as a result of the emergence of Zika virus. The virus, originally discovered in Uganda in the 1940s, is spread through mosquito bites and is rapidly expanding its reach in the Americas. Some reports from Brazil indicate that a subset of patients may have severe health consequences, including Guillain-Barre syndrome and serious birth defects in pregnant women. No local transmission has been reported in the United States, but cases have been reported in returning travelers, and the United States has competent mosquito vectors that could support local transmission here.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is dealing with its own outbreak of another impactful emerging infection, highly pathogenic avian influenza. The H7N8 bird flu strain hit a turkey farm in southern Indiana earlier this month, and several additional farms were infected with a less pathogenic version. This is a different virus than that which wreaked havoc throughout the Midwest last year (of the H5 subtype), and led to the depopulation of nearly 50 million birds. Vaccine development took too long to be of use in that outbreak.

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