The World Health Organization says it needs $56 million from donors to kickstart the response against the rapid spread of the Zika virus. But some experts say the expensive undertaking is far too little — and it’s starting to be far too late.
“Possible links with neurological complications and birth malformations have rapidly changed the risk profile for Zika from a mild threat to one of very serious proportions,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan.
WHO has declared Zika’s spread and its feared links with birth defects to be a global health emergency. It’s a largely bureaucratic action because the organization doesn’t have a lot of money itself to pour into fighting outbreaks. It has to raise the cash from member nations and from other donors, including large nonprofits.
And it has a lot to do to get started on Zika.
“The World strategy focuses on mobilizing and coordinating partners, experts and resources to help countries enhance surveillance of the Zika virus and disorders that could be linked to it, improve vector control, effectively communicate risks, guidance and protection measures, provide medical care to those affected and fast-track research and development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics,” WHO said in a statement Wednesday.
At least one critic came out quickly saying WHO needed to ask for far more.
“I am pleased that WHO has said that it must raise the funds needed for the global response,” said global health law expert Lawrence Gostin, also the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.
“However, its estimate of $56 million is far less than is required to stem the Zika epidemic in the Americas,” Gostin added. “The urgent need for aggressive mosquito control, surveillance, and research will require major global funding.”
Zika is carried by the Aedes aegypti and related species of mosquitoes, and WHO has said the best way to quickly fight Zika is to get rid of the pests.
Companies are also working on vaccines. Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. said Wednesday it had already made an experimental Zika vaccine and tests in mice looked positive.
The company said it will test the vaccine in non-human primates and initiate clinical product manufacturing.
“We plan to initiate phase I human testing of our Zika vaccine before the end of 2016,” said Dr. Joseph Kim, Inovio’s president and CEO.
But even with the quickest testing, a Zika vaccine would be more than a year away from the market and doctors still are not even sure how or whether Zika causes birth defects.
There are also questions about whether it causes a paralyzing condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
WHO and its Americas arm, PAHO, are helping answer the questions, as are Brazilian scientists, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and others.
“WHO’s Zika strategic response framework is a critically important step toward an effective response to the microcephaly/Zika epidemic threatening the life and health of young women and children in the Americas. It is also a critical step toward reestablishing WHO’s global health credibility which was significantly undermined during Ebola,” Gostin said.
WHO didn’t declare a global health emergency for Ebola until Aug. 8, months after a true epidemic had started.
“That lesson is that mobilizing funding in the midst of a global emergency will always be too little, too late. Instead, WHO must have a much larger emergency contingency fund that is triggered by a declaration of a public health emergency of international concern,” Gostin said.
Gostin said $4.5 billion was a more realistic figure to fight pandemics.
“WHO and the international community must take global health emergencies much more seriously to make the world safer,” he said.