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Science Policy Around the Web – April 29, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

digital forensics 5” by jon crel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Forsensic Science

Now Who Will Push Ahead on Validating Forensic Science Disciplines?

The realities of forensic science remain far removed from the white-coated wizardry depicted on shows like CSI. Although forensic results often heavily influence criminal trials, there is a substantial gap between the perceived and true reliability of commonly used methods such as fingerprint and bitemark identification. The National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) was established in 2013 to help close this gap, by promoting rigorous, independent evaluation of forensic techniques, as well as communication between law enforcement agencies and academic scientists. The NCFS was supported jointly by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), and has published over forty documents reflecting the consensus of scientists, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and other stakeholders.

Recently confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decided not to renew the NCFS’ charter, which expired on April 23, 2017. Its work will ostensibly be taken over by a new entity, which will be developed by a DOJ Subcommittee on Forensics and spearheaded by an as-yet-unnamed, DOJ-appointed Senior Forensic Advisor. The DOJ is currently seeking input on how best to organize this initiative, but its actions already suggest an unwillingness to follow expert guidance, such as the original recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences that led to the creation of the NCFS. The recommendations include ‘[t]his new entity must be an independent federal agency…[i]t must not be part of a law enforcement agency’ and ‘…no existing or new division or unit within DOJ would be an appropriate location for a new entity governing the forensic science community’.

Despite this setback, some of the NCFS’ contributions, such as promoting acceptance of the need for licensing and accreditation, may have a lasting influence on the field. In the NCFS’ absence, NIST is expected to play a central role in coordinating the forensic science community. Support for these efforts will be critical to improving standards in forensic practice, and ultimately, to providing justice to the American public. (Suzanne Bell, The Conversation)

Infectious Disease

Ghana, Kenya and Malawi to Take Part in WHO Malaria Vaccine Pilot Program

While interventions such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets have dramatically reduced malaria-related deaths, almost half a million people still die annually from the disease, predominantly children in sub-Saharan Africa. Continuing the fight against malaria, the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa (WHO/AFRO) has announced that a pilot program to test the world’s first malaria vaccine will begin in 2018. The vaccine (RTS,S or MosquirixTM) is the result of over $500 million in investment from GlaxoSmithKline and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It has shown promising results in Phase 3 trials, reducing rates of malaria by almost half in children treated at 5-17 months old. Following guidance from two independent advisory groups, the WHO will implement the vaccine in three countries that have high malarial burdens despite ongoing, large-scale anti-malaria efforts. The first stage of the program, which is being funded by several international health organizations in addition to WHO and GSK, will span 2018-2020, with final results expected in 2022.

RTS,S has followed an unconventional route to its current stage of development. It was approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) under Article 58, a mechanism that allows the EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) to collaborate with the WHO and international regulatory agencies to evaluate drugs intended for use in developing countries. However, in the first ten years after its inception in 2004, just seven drugs received positive opinions from CHMP through Article 58, and among these, the EMA has reported limited commercial success. This track record, combined with the emergence of more attractive incentive programs to develop drugs for tropical diseases (including a priority review voucher system launched by the FDA in 2007), has raised questions about Article 58’s effectiveness. A positive outcome for RTS,S could revitalize the program and lead to more innovative treatments for vulnerable populations worldwide. (WHO/AFRO press release)

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April 29, 2017 at 8:56 pm

How Science Policy Affects Pandemic Pathogen Research

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By: Samuel Porter, PhD

         In 2012, a pair of studies were published in Nature and Science weeks apart igniting one the biggest national debates about science in recent memory. These studies demonstrated that a few mutations in the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of influenza virus (colloquially known as “bird flu”) could enable it to be transmitted through the air to mammals. At the heart of controversy was the question of whether scientists should be creating more virulent and/or pathogenic strains of deadly viruses in the lab. This controversial research is known as “gain of function” studies.

Critics claimed that the research was too dangerous that the risk of an accidental or deliberate release of these lab strains was far greater than the scientific and public health benefits. In an attempt to respond to the growing concern over their work, the community of researchers working with these pathogens voluntarily agreed to suspend this gain of function research for 60 days to discuss new policies on conducting the research safely.

But that was not enough to satisfy critics of the research, who continued to lobby the Obama administration to take official action. On October 17, 2014 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), abruptly announced a pause on all U.S. Government funding of gain of function research on influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus until the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) could make recommendations for policy regulating the research going forward. The NSABB was formed in 2005 (in the wake of the anthrax attacks in 2001), and is composed of scientists from universities around the nation, and administrators from 14 separate agencies in the federal government. The board reports to the Secretary for Health and Human Services (HHS) and is tasked primarily with recommending policies to the relevant government entities on preventing published research in the biological sciences from negatively impacting national security and public health.

The move drew harsh criticism from researchers in the field, many of whom thought that it was too broad. They claimed it would jeopardize their ability to predict, detect, and respond to potentially emerging pandemics. In the private sector, several companies said that the order would prevent them from working on new antiviral drugs and vaccines. Furthermore, many young scientists worried that an inability to do their experiments could jeopardize their careers. In an effort to bring attention to the issue, many scientists (including the two flu researchers whose research triggered the pause) formed the group Scientists for Science, which advocates against blanket bans on research. In addition, researchers were especially upset by the recommendation of the NSABB to censor the publications resulting from the experiments due to fears that this research could have a “dual use” that would threaten national security. However, not all researchers in the field support gain of function research (the opposition group is called Cambridge Working Group) and maintain that the risks of the research outweigh benefits.

The moratorium lasted until January 9th, 2017, when the OSTP released the guidelines for funding this research in the future. The new rules are essentially the same recommendations put forth by the NSABB seven months earlier. The NSABB had concluded that these studies involving “potentially pandemic pathogens” (PPP) do indeed have important benefits to public health, but warranted additional screening prior to funding approval. It directed federal agencies to create a pre-funding review mechanism using eight criteria (including whether the pathogen is likely to cause a naturally occurring pandemic, and if there are alternative methods of answering the scientific question). The results of these reviews must be reported to the White House OSTP. Importantly, the policy was implemented in the final days of the Obama administration rather than leave it to the incoming Trump administration, who, as of this date, has yet to fill nearly any top science positions, and may not have issued guidance for months, if at all.  Researchers welcomed the decision to finally lift the ban, but questioned when the projects would be allowed to resume.

What can we learn from this situation from a science policy perspective? First, we must learn not to overreact to hysteria regarding the risks of this type of research. Indeed, there are risks in performing research on potentially pandemic strains of influenza and other pathogens, as there are with other types of research. But issuing overly broad, sweeping moratoriums halting ground breaking research for years is not the answer, nor is government censorship of academic publication. While in the end, the studies were given the green light to resume, and were published without modification, there is no making up for the lost time. These studies are not machines than can simply be turned on and off on a whim without repercussions. When we delay research into learning how viruses become pandemic, we hurt our ability to detect and respond to naturally occurring outbreaks. Additionally, when American scientists are prevented from doing research that other countries are still pursuing, American leadership in the biomedical sciences is at a competitive disadvantage. (The European Academies Science Advisory Council also recently updated its recommendations for PPP research in 2015, but did not institute a moratorium.) What we learn from these studies could potentially save countless lives. Secondly, the freedom to publish without any government censorship must be valiantly defended in any and all fields, especially with a new administration with an aggressively anti-science and anti-climate stance. Lastly, the scientific community must do a better job educating the public both on the importance of these studies from a public health perspective, and on the precautions put into place to ensure that these studies are conducted safely.

In the future, there will inevitably be debates over the safety or ethics of the latest experiments in a particular field. In attempting to wade through the murky waters of a complex controversy, science policy makers should make decisions that balance public health, safety, and ethics, rather than reactionary policies like censorships and moratoriums.

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April 21, 2017 at 8:47 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 11, 2017

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By: Liz Spehalski, PhD

Source: pixabay

Antibiotic Resistance

KFC to Stop Using Antibiotics in Chicken

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has announced that by 2018, all of its “finger-lickin’ good” chicken will be raised without antibiotics, a decision that is being applauded by health experts. KFC, which has the second largest sales of a U.S. chicken chain after Chick-fil-A is giving its poultry suppliers the deadline to stop using antibiotics in their protein. It will join other large chicken serving fast food chains in fighting the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, following in the footsteps of McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Subway. Corporate factory farms in the U.S. often treat their livestock and poultry with antibiotics to prevent disease and promote growth. Currently, livestock ventures utilize about 70% of the nation’s supply of the antibiotics that are given to patients when infections strike.

Antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents have been used successfully since the 1940s to treat people with infectious diseases, greatly reducing illness and death caused by microorganisms. However, the incidence of antibiotic- resistant bacteria is rising swiftly. According to the CDC, 2 million people become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 die because of these infections. Although resistance is caused simply by the wide usage of antibiotics across the globe, the fact remains that antibiotics are often incorrectly or over-prescribed.

This is a victory for consumer health groups who lobbied KFC to change its policies. “This announcement is a win for anybody who might someday depend on antibiotics to get well or even save their lives — i.e. everybody,” said Matthew Wellington, Program Director for one group’s antibiotics program. “It’s also a welcome step by KFC. The company’s newfound commitment on antibiotics should have lasting effects on the way these life-saving medicines are used in the chicken industry.” These advocates are currently lobbying state legislatures to pass laws that ban the routine use of antibiotics in livestock. (Lisa Baertlein, Business Insider)

Evolutionary Biology

Discovery of Giant Virus Fuels Debate over Fourth Domain of Life

Since their identification in the late 1800s as filterable infectious agents, viruses have long been characterized by their incredibly small size and their reliance on host cells for translation. These features have disqualified viruses as being classified as living organisms. However, with the discovery of the giant Mimivirus in 2003, evolutionary biologists are divided. Mimiviruses are larger than many microorganisms and can contain more than 2500 genes, including genes that implied their ancestors could live outside of a host cell. This discovery prompted some scientists to propose that viruses are descendants of a fourth domain of life alongside bacteria, eukaryotes, and archaea, while other researchers see no need for the fourth domain, asserting that viruses simply steal their genome from hosts.

A study published in Science on April 6 fuels this debate with the discovery of a virus in an Austrian sewage treatment plant that contains a genome with the most cell-like phenotype yet discovered. Klosneuvirus genomes contain genes for 20 amino acids as well as enzymes and other machinery used for protein synthesis. Analysis of these genomes suggests that the translation machinery seemed to have been picked up by one virus from a eukaryotic host cell, supporting the theory that viruses stole their genetic material and are thus not qualified as “life.” However, scientists have not been able to identify the host from which the stolen genes were taken, leaving the debate open since much of the Klosneuviruses’ translation genes do not match that of any other known organism. Further evolutionary work will need to be done to determine if viruses are indeed a fourth domain of life. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

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April 11, 2017 at 9:24 am

The Trans-Pacific Partnership and its Impact on Pharmaceutical Affordability

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By: Shakira M. Nelson, PhD, MPH

        For many, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a point of great debate during the 2016 Presidential primaries and election. As a simplified explanation, the TPP is a free-trade agreement involving the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, intended to “level the trading playing field” through the elimination of tariffs and other laws that create trade barriers. In its final form, the TPP would impact up to one-third of world trade and 40% of the global gross domestic product. Many who debated the ramifications of the TPP did so in the context of foreign policy interests. Although aligned with foreign policy, a major part of the TPP deals with intellectual property protection, and pharmaceutical drug development. If implemented, the effects of the TPP could greatly diminish public access to affordable medicines, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, the stronghold the TPP places on intellectual property could limit the development and marketing of less expensive options.

Intellectual property can be divided into two categories: industrial property and copyright. Patents, trademarks, and industrial design fall under industrial property. Patent development is a large part of scientists’ work, seen as almost a necessity to incentivizing innovation. Many argue that, without the ability to patent inventions and significant findings, scientists would not be able to generate profits used to sustain research and development; within the pharmaceutical industry, patents are the proverbial bread-and-butter. When in place, patents create a stronghold around the release of new chemical drugs, which prevents competition by generic brands. The standard length of time of a patent for a chemical drug is 20 years, which starts from the time the drug is invented.

Many new medicines under development today fall under the category of ‘biologics’. As the name suggests, biologics are treatments made from biological sources, and are very different from chemical drugs. Created to treat a multitude of diseases, including Ebola and cancer, biological sources include vaccines, anti-toxins, proteins, and monoclonal antibodies. Given their structural complexity compared to traditional drugs, and use of recombinant DNA technology, biologics are more difficult, and costlier to make. Moreover, manufacturers have a greater burden in ensuring product consistency, quality, and purity over time. This is done through certifying that the manufacturing process remains the same over time. Because of this, it is estimated that the price to manufacture biologics cost on average more than 22 times the price of chemical drugs. Current laws state that generic biologic development, known as biosimilars, cannot be approved until 12 years after the branded product has been approved – this is known as an exclusivity period. This was enacted under the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act of 2009, by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

The challenge with current policies is establishing a period-of-time that balances the need for companies to generate profits and cash flows, which will incentive them to conduct more research and compensate them for the extensive manufacturing processes, with the need to provide greater access through launching generic drugs and biosimilars. The trouble with the proposed policies of the TPP agreement is that they seem to embolden the pharmaceutical companies by introducing changes that would prevent competition from generics and biosimilars for longer periods of time than the current basic terms. The implications of this are far-reaching, as it may lead to a significant increase in the current costs of pharmaceutical drugs and biologics, hindering the health of the patients who rely upon these treatments.

Critics of the current system of patent length and biologic exclusivity periods fear that rather than incentivizing innovation, companies are being rewarded through their ability to charge higher amounts for drugs without the fear of competition on the market. Health policy experts concur, identifying policies such as the Hatch-Waxman Act of 1984 in allowing for the creation of drug monopolies, and “going too far in compensating the pharmaceutical industry at the public’s expense”. A report released in 2009 by the Federal Trade Commission stated that biosimilar development was more difficult to achieve than traditional generic drugs. For example, development requires comparisons to the original biologic, to prove efficacy and equivalence. Biosimilars must share the same mechanism of action, with no clinically significant differences in terms of safety or potency for the approved condition of use. The steps necessary to achieve this are significant, and therefore imposing a 12-year exclusivity period on biologics may be unnecessary. US Congressmen have pushed to compromise, floating an amendment to the TPP that would lower the exclusivity period to 8 years. However, critics and patients who rely upon drug competition to lower market prices, have protested this amendment stating that costs of new drugs and biologics are too high, and 8 years is too long of a length of time to wait for affordable generics and biosimilars to come on to the market.

The impact of decreasing the length of time it takes for biosimilars to come onto the market can be seen with Neupogen, a leukemia drug that was first approved by the FDA in 1991. Delivered via injection, Neupogen costs patients $3,000 for 10 injections. With injections needed daily, this drug could carry a price tag of well over $100,000 per year. It wasn’t until recently, however, that the first biosimilar was approved on the US market. The biosimilar, Zarxio, was approved as a leukemia drug and is priced at more than $1000 less than Neupogen. This pricing has the potential to decrease the yearly costs of this drug from $100,000 with Neupogen to $55,000-$75,000. Further evidence of these financial savings was provided by the Rand Corporation, which predicted a savings of over $44 billion over 10 years with an increased approval of biosimilars, for patients who rely upon these specific cancer treatments.

Internationally, the policies of the TPP also have far reaching effects on the availability and costs of pharmaceuticals. The 12-year exclusivity period would be imposed upon the other countries involved in the TPP, where currently for some, such as Brunei, there is no current exclusivity protection. By imposing the 12-year period, global competition could become restricted. Additionally, the TPP proposes other key patent protections that play a bigger role on the international market. One protection, known as evergreening, allows drug companies to request patent extensions for new uses of old drugs. The immediate effect of this is an extension of monopolies on drug sales for minor reasons. The second protection allows pharmaceutical companies to request patent extensions if it takes “more than 5 years for an application to be granted or rejected.” Advocacy groups fear that the price of drugs would undermine the efforts of health initiatives, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. These initiatives rely upon price competition to manage costs, with the availability of cheap generics helping drive costs down.

Although the current administration has ended the USA’s association with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is important to note that other countries may try to implement some of the policies, affecting the availability and affordability of drug treatments. To decrease this burden, the US could work to assist in negotiating exceptions for the poorer and smaller countries, to help them meet any challenges they may come up against. Within the US itself, it is important for policies, laws and any future trade agreements to be modified, with more of a focus on the affordability and regulation of drugs and biologics. Imposing price controls may offer a modest benefit, but may not be a long-term solution. A focus on lowering the patent length for new drugs and biologics can be an immediate step. Although the push back from pharmaceutical lobbyists will be substantial, alleviating the financial burden on families afflicted with cancer and diseases should be the focus.

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Science Policy Around the Web – March 18, 2017

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By: Joel Adu-Brimpong, BS

By James Tourtellotte, CBP Today [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Public Health Policy

Missing the Brush Strokes while Gazing at the Bigger Picture

Last Wednesday, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved a little-advertised bill called HR 1313, or the genetic testing bill, with partisan-line voting (all 22 republicans in favor and all 17 democrats opposed). Overshadowed by the highly publicized, contentious debate over the Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace efforts, this bill has remained largely undetected by the media as it traverses congress. This genetic testing bill would not only enable employers to require their employees to undergo genetic testing but also allow employers access to the genetic information, according to an article by STAT news. Employees refusing such requests could be at risk for thousands of dollars in penalties.

Current legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), prohibit such authority by employers, preventing requests by employers for “underwriting purposes”, which include “basing insurance deductibles, rebates, rewards, or other financial incentives on completing a health risk assessment or health screenings.” Additionally, genetic information provided to employers must be de-identified and aggregated to protect individual identities.

The HR 1313 bill would circumvent current legislation by nullifying these protections as long as the genetic test requests are part of “workplace wellness programs.” Employers purport that the ADA and GINA are “not consistent with the well-established and employee protective wellness program regulatory framework under HIPAA.” They argue that the House bill will aid in aligning the ADA and GINA with laws about workplace wellness programs. Conversely, experts including Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and Nancy Cox, president of the American Society of Human Genetics, have come out against the bill. In an opposition letter to chairwoman Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), and ranking member, Robert Scott, of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, critics of the bill state that “Workplace wellness programs are fully able to encourage healthy behaviors within the current legal framework: they need not collect and retain private genetic and medical information to be effective. Individuals ought not to be subject to steep financial pressures by their health plans or employers to disclose their own or their families’ genetic and medical information.” Nonetheless, with the possibility of such infringement, we remain lost in the bigger debate surrounding Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace efforts with little regard for subtle components like HR 1313. (Sharon Begley, STAT news)

Infectious Diseases

Here We Go Again? The Re-emergence of Yet Again, Another Arbovirus

The recent resurgence of arboviruses, or ARthropod-BOrne viruses, in the Americas is concerning. While the 1990’s saw the reemergence of Dengue and the West Nile, Chikungunya resurfaced in 2013 and, recently, Zika in 2015. With South and Central America and the Caribbean still reeling from the reemergence of these viruses, another arbovirus appears to be making a comeback. Over the past weeks, a fifth arbovirus has been detected. Per a perspective piece co-authored by Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there are on-going outbreaks of yellow fever in Brazil.

As of February 2017, there have been 234 reported cases and 80 confirmed deaths, with many other infections pending investigation. In context, the number of reported cases currently exceeds previously observed rates of infection for this time of the year. Regionally, the reported cases appear localized to rural areas in southeastern Brazil, chiefly Sao Paulo, Espirito Santo and Minas Gerais. According to the article, current cases appear to be “sylvatic” or jungle cases, with transmission occurring primarily between forest mosquitoes and non-human primates. Thus far, there is no evidence to suggest human-to-human transmission via the infamous Aedes aeqypti mosquito. Humans currently serve as “incidental hosts.” However, the propinquity of the affected areas to major urban centers in Brazil, where routine coverage of yellow fever vaccination is low, is alarming.

Experts posit that the likelihood of spread to the continental United States is low. However, they caution, “In an era of frequent international travel, any marked increase in domestic cases in Brazil raises the possibility of travel-related cases [anywhere].” A particularly poignant example in the article is the December 2015 large urban yellow fever outbreak in Angola and subsequent spread to the Congo. This led to an exhaustion of the world’s emergency supply of vaccines for epidemic response, “prompting health authorities to immunize inhabitants in some areas using one fifth of the standard does in order to extend vaccine supply.” Amidst these critical times of global health crises, threatened cuts to U.S. global health support will likely be catastrophic for developing nations. (Madison Park, CNN)

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March 18, 2017 at 9:31 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 7, 2017

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By: Allison Dennis, BS

Synthetic opiates

Opioid Crisis

Keeping up With the Synthetic Opioids

At the center of the opioid crisis is an ever-expanding class of would-be-regulated drugs, exploited for their ability to produce morphine-like effects. Opioids, including morphine, heroin, and oxycodone interact with the opioid receptors found on the surface of our nerve cells to trigger feelings of euphoria, and block pain. Unfortunately, these substances can adversely affect the respiratory rhythm generating area of the central nervous system, resulting in respiratory depression, effectively disrupting the body’s instincts to breathe.

In 2013, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency began to detect in confiscated supplies of heroin the synthetic compound, Fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent and carries a much higher risk of respiratory depression. The supply was traced to illicit online pharmacies in China, prompting Chinese officials to implement an export ban on fentanyl. Just as medical drug makers audition new compounds through structure-based drug design, illicit drug makers quickly modified the structure of fentanyl to produce furanyl fentanyl, temporarily circumventing the ban. This was followed by the production of the elephant tranquilizer, carfentanil. As of March 1, 2017, China has placed a ban on the sale and manufacture of these compounds along with acrylfentanyl and valeryl fentanyl.

However the dynamic that has emerged is a global game of whack-a-mole. Cutting off the global supply of fentanyl-derived compounds will require negotiations with individual governments to cooperate in their ban. Willing chemists in Mexico may already be setting up to fill the gap left by the ban in China. As each substance is entering the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s radar, the list of designer fentanyls is expanding. The rotating portfolio of synthetic opioids has left local law-enforcement and coroners stumped as to how to test for drugs not-yet-known to their screens, leaving a critical lag in identifying local suppliers. (Eric Niler, Wired Magazine)


Keeping up with the Neuraminidases

The H7N9 strain of bird flu may be gaining ground as a global threat to human health. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the presence of a highly pathogenic H7 avian influenza strain in a flock of chickens in Lincoln County, Tennessee. The agency is hurrying to establish the neuraminidase protein type, or “n-type” of the virus. In combination with the H7 hemagglutinin type, an N9 would consign this virus to the class of influenza the WHO has described as “definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses we have seen so far.”

First detected in China in 2013, the H7N9 strain has been the source of yearly epidemics of human infections. These infections are characterized by severe respiratory illness, which has lead to death in 40% of cases. Over 5 flu seasons, 1222 human cases of H7N9 flu have been confirmed. Most infections have been tied to direct exposure to poultry where the avian strain circulates, indicating that the virus is not currently suited for sustained person-to-person spread. However, the ability of these viruses to recombine, gaining new specificities, keeps public health officials watchful.

Following the first reports of H7N9 infections in humans in 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services amassed a 12 million-dose stockpile of H7N9 specific vaccines. However, the strains selected as the seeds for these vaccines may not adequately protect against the particular H7N9 virus circulating now.  The U.S. CDC is currently evaluating the need to update its vaccine stockpiles in addition to recommending inclusion of H7N9 in next year’s seasonal flu vaccine. Many researchers are hoping to circumvent these concerns with the development of a universal vaccine, protective against all known flu strains. (Helen Branswell, STATnews)

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March 7, 2017 at 9:02 am

Sickle Cell Disease in Sub-Saharan Africa: Using Science Diplomacy to Promote Global Health

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By: Steven Brooks, PhD

         Science diplomacy is an important conduit through which nations can cooperate with each other to help address issues of common concern. Establishing international collaborations based on scientific research and resource sharing can be a valuable tool to promote advances in global health and to help foster research communities in developing nations. In 2001, Nelson Mandela proposed a model for building and advancing a network of institutions investing in Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to enhance economic diversification, promote job growth, and improve living conditions for peoples across the region. Since then, significant strides have been made by many international organizations, including the World Health Organization, World Bank, and United Nations, to invest in SET institutions and researchers across SSA. Much work is still needed, however, to address the significant global health disparities affecting SSA. According to the United Nations Development Programme, life expectancy in SSA is on average only 46 years. Among the largest contributory factors to this gap is HIV/AIDS, but non-communicable diseases and genetic conditions such as Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) contribute as well. SCD in particular offers a stark geographic contrast in disease outcome: in the United States, childhood mortality (up to age 18) from SCD is below 10%, while in SSA the early childhood mortality rate is 50-90% by age 5. This drastic difference in childhood mortality from SCD raises an important question- why is the difference in mortality rates so large, and what can be done to eliminate it?

SCD represents a significant public health success in the United States. From the early 1970s, average life expectancy of people with SCD has substantially increased from 14 years of age to over 40 years, and childhood mortality rates have continued to decline. These vast improvements in SCD mortality in the US are attributable to improvements in screening and early diagnosis, as well as surveillance for early childhood infections and prophylactic treatments.  Availability of therapies like hydroxyurea and access to blood transfusions have also contributed to reducing childhood mortality, while several currently ongoing clinical trials in the US are testing the use of bone marrow transplantation as a curative procedure for patients with severe complications of SCD. While the best practices for diagnosing and treating SCD are well-established in developed nations, lack of global implementation has meant that these advances in treatment have had very limited effect on reducing mortality and improving quality of life in developing nations. More than 85% of all new SCD cases occur in SSA, with over 240,000 infants with SCD born in SSA annually (compared to less than 2,000 in the US). Many nations in SSA do not have the resources or personnel to implement protocols for screening and diagnosis, and many children are born outside of hospitals. As a result, most children born with SCD in SSA will go undiagnosed, and therefore untreated, leading to devastatingly high rates of early childhood mortality for children with SCD.

The disparity in health outcomes between children born with SCD in developed nations and developing nations in SSA should be addressed through science diplomacy. An opportunity exists for diplomatic cooperation between scientists and health officials from the US and their counterparts in SSA to build infrastructure and train researchers and healthcare professionals to diagnose, treat, and innovate new solutions for SCD. The crucial first steps towards improving outcomes in SCD – parental and newborn screening, early childhood nutrition standards, parental and community education, and anti-bacterial and anti-viral vaccinations and prophylaxis – are achievable through diplomatic efforts and collaboration with governmental health agencies across SSA. Proof of this concept has been demonstrated in Bamako, Mali, with the success of the CRLD (The Center for Sickle Cell Disease Research and Control), a SCD-specific treatment and research center that reflects an effort of the government of Mali, with funding and medical resources provided by the Foundation Pierre Fabre. The CRLD utilizes modern diagnostic techniques to screen for SCD. It also provides immunizations, hospitalizations, and access to preventive medicine, and provides education and outreach to patients and to the larger community. Historically, the infant mortality rate from SCD in Mali was estimated to be 50% by age 5. Since the opening of the CRLD in 2005, only 81 of the over 6,000 patients enrolled at CRLD have died, a mortality rate for this cohort that is comparable to rates in the US and UK. The CRLD also has modern laboratories that conduct research, with over 20 academic papers published from the CRLD so far. The ongoing success of the CRLD is proof that investment in, and collaboration with, governments and medical professionals in Africa can lead to equitable health outcomes in SCD. Similar investments by the US government and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), possibly through intramural research programs, and in cooperation with health-focused private foundations, could lead to similar success stories in communities across SSA.

The NIH supports and facilitates collaborations in global health research through the NIH Fogarty International Center (FIC), which currently sponsors projects in 20 countries across SSA. NIH has also invested intramural resources into collaborations in SSA to combat Malaria. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) trains and sponsors investigators to independently conduct research in Mali (NIAID’s Mali ICER (International Centers of Excellence in Research)). Despite its significant history of investment in SSA, the NIH offers almost no international support for research related to SCD. The NIH FIC only currently funds one project related to SCD, preventing pediatric stroke in Nigerian Children. The Division of Intramural Research at the NIH is currently home to robust basic science and clinical-translational research on SCD. Intramural researchers can and should collaborate with clinicians and scientists from SSA who will lead the effort to combat SCD in their home nations. More broadly, the NIH could spearhead an initiative to bring together stakeholders from the US government, health ministries from nations in SSA, and private foundations that support efforts to reduce or eradicate global disease, to begin establishing a network of laboratory and clinical facilities for testing and treatment, as well as to train clinicians and researchers from SSA in diagnostic and research techniques specific to SCD, and to design and disseminate educational resources for increasing communal knowledge regarding SCD across SSA.

In addition to significantly improving SCD mortality and health outcomes in SSA, these efforts of science diplomacy will have substantial benefits in the US as well. The US is home to a sizeable, and growing population of people living with SCD. As life expectancy continues to increase, new challenges will arise for effectively treating serious complications associated with SCD, such as renal disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, heart failure, cardiomyopathy, and pulmonary hypertension. By collaborating with researchers and healthcare leaders studying large populations of people with SCD in SSA, the NIH will foster innovation and generate new insights about SCD that are uniquely informed by the data and perspectives of African scientists and populations. The NIH and the US government can establish a mutually beneficial program of treatment, education, and research that will enable developing nations to treat their patients with the same methods available in the US. Investing in 21st century methods of diagnosis and treatment, as well as contributing funding, training, and infrastructure to clinicians and researchers in SSA, can strengthen diplomatic relationships between governmental leaders and scientists alike and lead to lasting collaborations that strengthens research and innovation into new treatments for SCD.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 3, 2017 at 9:21 am