by Patrick Cox
September 29, 2017
Zika eradication programs seemed to be working. That was before Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria wrecked infrastructures in Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico. Now, all three regions are water-logged mosquito nurseries, and Puerto Rico may not have basic services for months. That means that mosquito control efforts will suffer.
In fact, many mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus have meteorologically relocated. So we can expect outbreaks in new locales.
The Rise of Treatment Resistant Superbugs
A new CDC report confirmed that Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes can thrive in most of the US. These are the types that carry dangerous viruses including Zika, yellow fever, dengue, and chikungunya.
We already knew this, though. These mosquitoes and the diseases they carried, including malaria, were once endemic in the US. DDT changed that, but then it was banned. Despite the return of limited DDT usage, disease-carrying mosquitoes continue to spread into welcoming habitats.
The diseases carried by mosquitoes keep evolving. Many have developed resistances to once effective medications. This includes a new super-malaria, spreading rapidly in Southeast Asia. Researchers warn that international travel and wind-blown mosquitoes could make this a global problem.
2017 marks the end of a record 12-year break during which no Category 3–5 hurricanes hit the US mainland. The longest previous record was an 8-year period between 1860 and 1869.
I think it’s unlikely that 2017 will be an anomaly. Hurricanes have historically come in cycles. Ten Category 4 or 5 storms made landfall on the US in the 50 years between 1920–1969. Only three have come onshore in the 46-year period since then. Clearly, we’re overdue for more.
I don’t know if it’s possible for humans to affect climate, but I’m 100% certain that nothing can be done that would have any real impact on weather for decades. As a result, there will be ample opportunities for virus-carrying mosquitos to extend their reach.
So we had better be prepared.
New Approaches to Infectious Disease
There is excellent progress being made in the fight against mosquito-borne pathogens. That progress comes out of entirely new approaches to infectious diseases and has the potential to end most contagious diseases.
The most obvious field of research is vaccines, but that will never be enough. We know that some of the population is vaccinophobic. Also, vaccines usually require several weeks to trigger an immune response. Giving someone a flu vaccine after they’ve contracted the influenza virus is useless.
More conventionally, monoclonal antibodies (mABs) skip the process of developing immunities. These drugs are antibodies produced by cloned cells that have already developed immunities to a disease.
Other drugs take this approach even farther. They use engineered genes that express disease-fighting antibodies.
Another solution comes from the field of nanobiotechnology. These engineered molecules act like microscopic Venus flytraps. They trap viruses in polymer nanovesicles that pass harmlessly from the body.
There is no doubt that science can solve the problem of infectious diseases. In fact, solutions already exist. Many of these technologies face a long, costly regulatory approval process, but they’re on their way. Ironically, most have received assistance from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
This probably shouldn’t surprise you. American soldiers are often called to work in parts of the world with severe disease problems. They also face the threat of bioweapons (pathogens) deployed for military or terrorist reasons.
It may be a sign of the times that many scientists working in infectious disease are critical of the FDA but supportive of DARPA. I’ve heard from more than one scientist that the Defense Department’s new technology division is the most important force for progress against infectious diseases today.
DARPA’s main function is only to identify and nurture scientific breakthroughs that offer solutions to natural and manmade threats. So it can fund early research and trials, but it can’t take a drug all the way through the costly clinical trial process.
For those interested in seeing cures for the big killers, DARPA is an important resource. If you’d like to follow some the agency’s work in biotech and other fields, much of DARPA’s research is online here.