In terms of global threats, infectious diseases have a low profile despite outbreaks of viruses such as Ebola or Zika. Many believe such epidemics are behind us.

A rash of outbreaks in West Africa and South America, however, should serve as warnings that global cooperation, surveillance and technological development are key to avoiding a cataclysmic event.

Putting out fires

“We've been putting out fires instead of preventing them,” notes Leslie Lobel, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Medical Advisor to ClinicalRM, a full-service contract research organization specializing in rapid response for infectious disease outbreaks and preclinical through Phase IV support of clinical trial services for biologics, drugs and devices. “When a pathogen emerges we can’t develop vaccines and therapeutics quickly enough, and quarantines lead to issues of security and economic hardship.”

''“There was a call to arms after the Ebola outbreak. The WHO put out a solicitation for a program for emerging infectious diseases that has gotten a strong response.”

Global monitoring of infectious disease ecosystems, modeled on procedures of intelligence services, is essential. “There was a call to arms after the Ebola outbreak,” Dr. John Dye, Chief of Viral Immunology at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases says. “The WHO put out a solicitation for a program for emerging infectious diseases that has gotten a strong response.” Additionally, portable sequencers could identify pathogens quickly, although local infrastructure limitations might limit their effectiveness.

A lack of biopharma profit motive is also a roadblock. “These steps require relatively small investment,” Dr. Lobel points out, “while events such as the 2012 Ebola Outbreak in Africa cost billions.” Governments can play a role in encouraging and investing in surveillance and scalable vaccine and therapeutic solutions.

“We have forgotten about the threat of viral disease,” Dr. Lobel says. “But viruses never sleep.”