Does Zika vaccine development need an Operation Warp Speed?
In less than a year, scientists created multiple effective COVID-19 vaccines. Five years after the Zika virus epidemic, there is still no vaccine against the mosquito-borne disease.
We asked Gregory A. Poland, MD, professor of infectious diseases and director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic, if Zika vaccine development needs a public-private partnership on the scale of Operation Warp Speed, the government’s endeavor to speed up development of COVID-19 vaccines.
I don’t think that Zika virus vaccine development needs an Operation Warp Speed-like investment and galvanized attention in the same way that SARS-CoV-2 does in the midst of a pandemic. We do not have any outbreaks of Zika that are occurring currently. What is important, though, is that we will very likely see Zika again — or something like it — and that is the reason it is important to continue vaccine development.
Recall what happened with SARS-CoV-2. There was a SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in 2003. That occurred in November. By that summer, it was gone. Nonetheless, mRNA-based vaccines were developed at that time, tested in animal models, then put on the shelf when the immediate need disappeared. They were taken down again in 2012, when Middle East respiratory syndrome occurred, and then put back on the shelf, and yet used to develop other vaccines including an mRNA Zika vaccine. So, you’re developing those technologies in advance of their needs. Occasionally, you have to accelerate efforts, like Operation Warp Speed did, because you have a major outbreak or a public health emergency. In this case, we do not have a pandemic situation.
The problem that we run into all the time in vaccinology is that the attention span of government and funding agencies is short. As soon as Zika stopped being a problem, the funding dried up. That is short-sighted because what should happen is that vaccine development should continue so that it’s ready for the next outbreak or for a virus like Zika. That way, we can very quickly repurpose any candidate vaccines and make a vaccine. For all of those reasons, we need continued investment in the development of ideally more than one Zika vaccine. It does not need the billions of dollars and international collaboration that go into responding to a pandemic, but it needs some level of sustained effort.
Developing vaccines against a specific organism is important. But it has an importance above and beyond just that microorganism. We have a SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine because an mRNA vaccine was developed against SARS-CoV-1. The time interval between the two of those vaccines was 17 years. But thank goodness we had it, or we would be nowhere near having a vaccine in 10 months, which is a miraculous achievement. More than 1.7 million people around the world have died of COVID-19, and in the United States, one out of every almost 1,100 Americans has died. What would it have been like if we were starting from scratch?
So to summarize, the development of technologies focused on a certain virus or microorganism has broader applications above and beyond just that single pathogen. With the success of the two mRNA vaccines approved for emergency use by the FDA, you will now see an acceleration and expansion of its use to create vaccines and therapeutics in oncology, allergy and any disease for which the development of an antibody against a target protein would be helpful. That’s the power of vaccines — both in the therapeutic and prophylactic sense.
Click here to read the Cover Story, 'Zika 5 years later: Still much to learn as ‘likely’ future outbreak looms.'