#USScienceEnvoy: Building Vaccine Development Capacity in the Middle East and North Africa

My role as a U.S. Science Envoy in 2015 has focused on a worrisome trend that became especially obvious following the emergence of the Ebola virus infection in West Africa last year. It is now increasingly apparent that catastrophic epidemic infections arise in the context of extreme poverty combined with conflict or post-conflict settings leading to breakdowns in public health infrastructure. The link helps explain why kala-azar (also known as visceral leishmaniasis) killed tens of thousands of people in Sudan during the 1980s and 1990s, and why Ebola wreaked havoc in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. 

A similar set of circumstances may be brewing in Islamic State-occupied conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and also, possibly Yemen. 

As part of the larger U.S.-led Global Health Security Agenda, I am using my experiences as a vaccine developer for neglected tropical diseases and as head of the Sabin Vaccine Institute non-profit product development partnership (PDP) to build and shape regional capacity for making vaccines in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The emphasis is to work with MENA public biotechnology institutions to position them so they might one day develop new generation vaccines for the potential epidemics that could arise from conflict areas.  Such vaccines so far have not been of great interest to multinational pharmaceutical companies, in part because they are of regional importance rather than global threats.

Dr. Hotez visits laboratory at the University of Jazan in Saudi Arabia [State Department Photo].

I have started by focusing on Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. In Morocco, I traveled with State Department’s Dr. Kimberly Coleman to Rabat, Fez, and Casablanca. While with Dr. Bruce Ruscio in Saudi Arabia we visited Riyadh, Dammam, and Jazan. I also went to Tunisia to work with the Institute Pasteur Tunis and the Ministry of Health. These cities are of special interest because of the reputation and accomplishments of their major research universities in conducting biotechnology activities, and the fact that geographically they are situated between conflict areas to the north and the south. Saudi Arabia in particular, has a strong tradition of biotechnology in Riyadh’s major research institutes and universities. There is also an important history of developing vaccines at the Pasteur Institutes in Morocco and Tunisia.  For these reasons we are also exploring the potential benefits of international scientific cooperation among these nations. 

Not many people are aware that the oral polio vaccine that many of us received as children was first developed in the late 1950s through back channel cooperation between U.S. and Soviet scientists.  We are hoping that similar collaborations between the United States and MENA nations might also lead to a successful venture in the area of vaccine diplomacy!

About the Author: Professor Peter Hotez MD, PhD is a U.S. Science Envoy for the U.S. Department of State and White House Office of Science and Technology Program. He is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development (Sabin PDP).

Editor's note: The views presented herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government. 

For More Information:

Doctors give vaccines to the pilgrims before their flight to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform Haj pilgrimage.
Posted by Peter Hotez
November 12, 2015


Latest Stories

January 19, 2017

What We Got Right

With a new administration taking office this week, it is natural to assess the inheritance it will receive from the… more