May 30, 2016

Research Roundup: Antimicrobial R&D, pandemic insurance, and Zika countermeasures

Senior Program Assistant

At last week’s World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative launched the Global Antibiotic Research and Development (GARD) Partnership, an initiative to develop new antibiotics to combat the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. More than EU€2 million has been pledged to the GARD Partnership, from nonprofit Médecins Sans Frontières and the governments of Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. This innovative financing approach will enable the partnership to delink the costs of research and development (R&D) from sales and product price; new treatments can be sold affordably and promoted responsibly, without the pressure to recoup the costs of R&D. During the incubation period, the partnership will finance three to four projects while developing a long-term business plan, with the goal of becoming an independent entity by the end of 2017.

At a recent meeting of G7 finance ministers and central bank governors, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced the creation of an insurance fund to fight pandemics, which will provide up to US$500 million for pandemic response in the world’s poorest countries. The Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility will be funded by reinsurance markets and World Bank–issued catastrophe bonds, which have been used to respond to natural disasters. Premiums will be covered by the World Bank and development partners. Funding eligibility will be determined by the size, growth, and spread of an outbreak and will be limited to pandemics in 78 low-income countries, caused by certain virulent, infectious diseases, including influenza, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and other zoonotic diseases. The facility was established in collaboration with the WHO and insurance providers Swiss Re and Munich Re. The Japanese government has committed US$50 million to the facility.

Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York have identified a protein on the Zika virus that inhibits the human immune system from effectively combatting the virus. The protein—NS5—blocks signals between Zika-infected cells and the immune system; consequently, the immune system fails to produce the potent antiviral interferon. NS5 plays a similar role in other flaviviruses, including dengue and West Nile, but the mechanism by which NS5 prevents interferon production varies. The study suggests that altering or removing NS5 would enable the immune system to swiftly attack the virus. The team believes that a vaccine against the virus could be developed using a live strain of Zika, weakened by modifying or removing NS5.

Meanwhile, Australian biotechnology company Biotron announced last week the identification of two compounds in its library that are effective against Zika virus in test tubes. The company specializes in HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C treatments and uses a broad antiviral platform to target specific proteins known as vioporins that are also found in the Ebola, MERS, and Zika viruses.