July 02, 2017

Research Roundup: Polio mutation troubles, a pandemic bond, and Kenya's launch of a generic HIV drug

Heng Chivoan

In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

While polio has continued on a path toward global eradication, there have still been many substantial obstacles. The most recent challenge has been the number of cases of polio reported due to the oral polio vaccine. The vaccine, containing a weakened form of the live virus, caused just over 20 cases of polio in 2017—more than the to-date cases of wild polio. Polio is considered a “smart” virus with the capability of mutating and regaining strength rapidly, causing more problems for areas of the world that rely on the live, oral polio vaccine. Even with the problems surrounding the live polio vaccine, the vaccine has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and is credited with driving down infection rates to near-zero. Once the majority of the population is vaccinated and cases of all polio infections level off, public health professionals can begin to taper off using the vaccine to ensure continued eradication.

Ebola health workers prepare their suits during the 2012 Ebola epidemic.

Pandemics are among the most likely uninsured risks to occur, risk modelers have argued. A moderately severe pandemic event could cost upward of US$750 billion and affect tens of countries across the globe. To combat this financial risk, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a pandemic bond program to prevent this risk. The bond program—called the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEFT)—would provide substantial funds to any country affected by a pandemic, and the turnover of the funds would be quick. If a program like PEFT existed during the 2014 Ebola pandemic, millions of dollars and thousandsof lives could have been saved. Instead, countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone struggled to come up with the funds to cover the various expenses associated with pandemics. Investors are already keen on buying into the bond program, suggesting it will be successful in the long-term effort to curb the disastrous effects of a moderately severe pandemic. 

A generic version of a popular HIV antiretroviral drug recently launched in Kenya, making it the first country to debut an affordable HIV treatment. The drug launch is a part of a larger Optimal ARV Project, with the goal to increase access to treatment in areas of the world affected by HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. The antiretroviral is one that is most commonly used around the world, including the United States, with quick, positive results and minimal side-effects. While the daily regimen of taking antiretroviral drugs is still a tedious and essential set of tasks, the generic version offers poor individuals in remote-access areas the ability to use the drug with increased frequency, achieving better results, and driving down incidences of HIV.