Creating a rapid response – relevant to Zika virus

I have been following the news on the Zika virus over the last few weeks as it has spread with travelers returning from trips and women giving birth to children with microcephaly. Along with it is a spreading underlying fear of where it will lead. Its not so long ago that Ebola, was grabbing headlines. The world was generally very slow to react and that lead to large numbers of fatalities and lingering economic effects. It reminds me of something Christopher Southan, Megan Coffee and myself had written in 2014-2015 on finding small molecules for the next Ebola.  Although Zika virus is a flavivirus that is transmitted by mosquitos rather than an ebolavirus the steps we proposed are entirely transferable to this or any other pathogen. I will not go into detail as the article is open. It can be summarized here as bullets:

Text mine the literature

Patent assignees and/or inventors should openly declare their relevant filings

Reagents and assays could be commoditized

Using manual curation to enhance database links

Engage database and curation teams

Consider Open Science approaches

Adapt the “box” model for shareable reference compounds

Involve the physician’s perspective

Of course its impossible to predict which virus is going to grab global attention next but it does raise the question will we be ready and if so how will nations respond.  Currently most of the press is talking about vaccines and companies are accessing if their platforms will be useful. The USA is meant to have a plan but what is currently being done? And what about the rest of the world?

Perhaps what the world needs is a an international rapid response group that can identify what data and labs can be best suited to tackling a pathogen, rather than these large organizations which are not moving fast. For Example WHO came under attack for the glacial pace of their response to Ebola.

In the case of Ebola there were several high throughput screens of FDA approved drugs in the preceding few years before the outbreak in 2014 which lead to leads that were largely ignored. For Zika virus the closest screening is for compounds against Dengue virus, yellow fever, hepatitis C etc which are in the same family. This  kind of information and the molecules need to be collated so that those involved in screening can go straight to these.

The NIH NIAID responded by sending out a notice of interest for their regular grant programs. So by the time scientists apply, go through peer review and stand a slim chance of funding they may actually start their work within a year if lucky if there are no government close downs. So realistically these grant mechanisms will not bear fruit for several years. There has to be another way? There are probably few labs suited for working on Zika because of the biohazard, (fewer still work on just this family) but it would mean setting aside current research and trying to develop drugs or vaccines instead of say for Dengue or other viruses.

Which brings me back to why we cannot repurpose compounds we already have from say Hepatitis C or with activity against other viruses, parasites or pathogens. As we found with the potent antimalarial pyronaridine this compound was active against Chagas disease and Ebola virus. There must be other examples of molecules like this that can be used across pathogens. But are we even looking?

How can we expedite the research? I think scientists can certainly volunteer any time and resources and perhaps generate the preliminary work that’s needed here. If anyone is interested perhaps we can coordinate it online. The NIH needs faster and more flexible funding and peer review mechanisms to actually resource the work that is needed. When there are challenges like this and Ebola, there has to be some leeway to think outside the box before its too late.

So lets get going, there is no time to waste.



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