The Need for Anti-Viral Therapies
Effective and readily available anti-viral therapies are an essential element of global public health strategies. A first line of defence against emerging pandemics, aggressive use of anti-virals has been shown in models to provide the crucial protection to contain outbreaks that would otherwise become pandemics.
Anti-viral drugs can provide effective treatment for diseases while a vaccine is being developed, as has been the case for HIV/AIDS. It is the antiretroviral drugs that have made AIDS treatable. Furthermore, low-cost, novel anti-virals present an option for treatment in situations where vaccines or existing therapies are too expensive or not widely available.
In most cases, however, commercial approaches to drug development have failed to yield an adequate pipeline of anti-viral drugs. Pharmaceutical companies have been hesitant to spend development dollars on diseases that primarily afflict the developing world. Furthermore, although some basic research is undertaken to this end, the academic culture is not tailored to the unique demands of drug development. As such, there exists a distinct anti-viral gap in the global drug development scene.
Vaccines: An Incomplete Solution
Public health officials have traditionally relied upon vaccines to provide protection against viral diseases. Although successful in many situations, vaccines are not a panacea. Effective vaccines have yet to be developed for many diseases. Scientists have worked for over 20 years on one for HIV/AIDS; an effective vaccine is still years away.
The vaccines available for annual influenza are not likely to be effective against pandemic influenza. As the next pandemic will be caused by a mutation of an influenza virus strain with minimal previous contact with humans, available vaccines will provide limited or no protection. A new vaccine will have to be developed, produced and deployed. This process takes at least six months under the most optimistic scenario. During the first six months of a pandemic, however, millions are projected to die. Furthermore, vaccine production capacity is concentrated in a few countries. If borders close during a pandemic situation, there is no guarantee that new vaccines will be available internationally.
The same problems apply for many emerging diseases. It is impossible to forecast what the next pandemic will be. As such, we need preventative treatments that are stable, effective and readily accessible around the world.
Vaccines are often difficult to administer. Even though vaccines exist for many diseases, they are not available to all those in need. Cost-effective drugs provide short-term treatment solutions to unvaccinated populations or where vaccines are unavailable.
Vaccines and anti-virals are both essential parts of comprehensive public health strategies. To offer protection against neglected tropical diseases as well as deadly pandemics, the world needs a viable pipeline of effective, affordable and available anti-viral therapies.