Ebola captured headlines last year for obvious reasons: It’s deadly, it’s contagious, and there’s no cure. Perhaps the only silver lining to the epidemic, which ravaged several African nations, was that researchers were able to test new drugs and vaccines against the virus. Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has come up with a short list of diseases that pose a similar risk—with the aim of focusing research on them before the next outbreak.
The list is part of a wider WHO program called the “R&D blueprint for action to prevent epidemics.” After WHO’s initial response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was widely panned for its slow start, the World Health Assembly in May demanded the organization develop better ways to prepare for major outbreaks and to accelerate R&D on severe infectious diseases. Often, the only way to study treatments for these diseases is during an outbreak, meaning that candidate drugs and vaccines need to be ready to go.
About two dozen scientists and clinicians met in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday and Wednesday this week to select five to 10 diseases most “likely to cause severe outbreaks in the near future, and for which few or no medical countermeasures exist,” according to astatement.
They came up with a list of eight deadly diseases: Ebola, Marburg, severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Nipah, Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, and Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever. “Many of these diseases have not received the funding or the attention they require,” says Cathy Roth, a science policy adviser at WHO.
Coming up with a short list wasn’t easy. “We discussed a large number of diseases,” Roth says. “There was a lively debate.” In the end, the scientists decided to leave out diseases like avian influenza or HIV, because these already get much attention and research funding. And the researchers added a second tier of three diseases which they ranked as serious: chikungunya, severe fever with thrombocytopaenia syndrome, and Zika. The next step will be to analyze the status of research on each of the diseases, listing important scientific gaps and the most promising drug or vaccine candidates, Roth says.
The list is a good idea, says Julien Potet, policy adviser for neglected tropical diseases at Doctors Without Borders. “I am happy to see that Lassa fever is on there,” he says. The disease has been endemic in West Africa and elsewhere for years, but has received scant attention. Potet would like to see a similar push to fight neglected diseases, such as leishmaniasis, that already cause immense suffering, he says. “We need to address the public health emergencies that are already happening as well as the ones that might happen in the future.”