Nipah virus may not be as commonly known as other infectious diseases such as Ebola or Zika, but the devastating disease has already claimed 17 lives in Kerala, India in the latest outbreak. The infection produces flulike symptoms, which often lead to acute respiratory infection. Encephalitis, or brain inflammation, also an effect, can prove fatal in some circumstances. The virus resides naturally in fruit bats across South Asia and can be spread from animals to humans through contaminated foods or from person to person. It has a case fatality rate of 40-75 percent.
Nipah is on the WHO’s list of blueprint priority diseases which calls for urgent research. The only current recommended treatment is supportive care for respiratory infection, which in many cases is insufficient. Since the disease is rare and tropical, there is little incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest in developing a vaccine or treatment. Without a market, people will likely continue to suffer unless the threat of the disease spreading increases significantly.
The good news is that last year, two biotech companies struck a deal worth USD $25 million to accelerate R&D on a vaccine for Nipah. The experimental vaccine has already been tested on animals with promising results. The money was provided by CEPI, a coalition that sees itself as a global insurance policy against epidemics funded by Norway, Germany, Japan, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.
However, Nipah is only one of a host of diseases with no prevention or treatment measures. As vector borne diseases continue to spread more rapidly due to globalization and climate change, it is important for the global health community and governments to prepare by incentivizing R&D and ensuring rapid distribution of vaccines and treatments as they become available.
photo credit: WHO