Infectious disease research is a triathlon

Dealing with viruses, bacteria and other pathogens requires many approaches

January 28, 2021
Jeffrey Bouley
Infectious disease research is a triathlon

Let’s face it, some diseases are easier than others to get a handle on and identify treatments that can rein them in. Cardiovascular disease is probably an easier target than diabetes and is definitely an easier target than neurological ailments. Cancer comprises myriad variants and remains a long haul. And then there is infectious disease—a multitude of pathogens that mutate and sometimes become resistant, and entirely new ones that just pop out of seemingly nowhere.

If many diseases are a hard-run sprint and still others are marathons, infectious disease is one of the areas that’s more like a triathlon.
We’re dealing with that now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic with a virus that’s decided to not only endure but also recently unleash a more infectious variant on us, and it’s not like other problems such as drug-resistant bacteria and so many other challenges went away to give us space to take a breath.

This issue, we have a Focus Feature on vaccines and, as you can probably guess, COVID will loom large in that feature. Last month we had a Special Report on infectious disease and, wisely, our features editor, Randall C Willis, decided not to take the “easy” route and talk about the novel coronavirus because it’s about more than this pandemic. And it’s about more than vaccines.

As Randy noted in that feature, vaccines are great, but they don’t cover all our needs. People will still become infected with viruses, so we need antiviral therapeutics as well. We cannot become so focused in the race against disease that we neglect one area for another. Again, it’s a triathlon. You can’t just be good at running, swimming, or cycling. One skill won’t carry you to victory.

I was also reminded of the long-haul nature of infectious disease drug discovery and development as I looked back at an email from late 2020 in which the European Medicines Agency (EMA) endorsed a statement by the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities (ICMRA) urging vaccines researchers and investigators, academia, regulators, and the pharmaceutical industry to continue COVID-19 vaccine trials beyond the time when the pre-defined cases of COVID-19 disease for final analysis in a trial have been reached.

“Vaccines will be a key component in overcoming COVID-19, and we must ensure that robust and convincing evidence is being generated to enable the continuous assessment of their benefits and risks,” wrote Emer Cooke, chair of ICMRA and EMA’s executive director.

See? Even if you’re focused just on vaccines, it’s a marathon—and maybe still a triathlon.

The speed with which we have now reached the point of apparently effective vaccines has been astounding. The level of cooperation among various stakeholders, some of the competitors—and the speed with which regulators have approved new vaccines to push back COVID—is a wonder to behold. But we’re still in for the long haul, so all the best to all of you in this race. May you never suffer from tunnel vision and may the successes keep coming.

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