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Expert Insight Series: Vaccines and the rise of emerging and neglected diseases in MENA

Peter Hotez MD PhD*

Dr. Peter J. Hotez

In January 2017, I completed my two-year term as U.S. Science Envoy, a program established by the Obama Administration. My major activities were focused on vaccine diplomacy and building capacity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for developing new vaccines against neglected and emerging infections.

The urgency for these vaccines reflects a growing awareness that civil and international conflicts create conditions that favor the rise of new diseases and the reappearance of old diseases. Most recently the Daesh occupation and civil conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya have contributed to new polio and measles epidemics, as well as large outbreaks of cutaneous leishmaniasis. In Yemen we have also seen increases in neglected diseases such as schistosomiasis and cholera.

In response, our Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, the research arm of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, expanded its product development partnership model and has embarked on substantive vaccine development collaborations with research institutions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including a joint capacity building initiative with King Saud University. Towards that goal, we anticipate a first contingent of Saudi scientists will arrive in Houston beginning this fall. In addition, Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development is spearheading an ambitious collaboration with a consortium of Saudi institutions to develop and test a safe and effective MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus vaccine. The consortium’s goal is to scale-up and manufacture this vaccine jointly, so clinical trials for safety and efficacy might begin in Saudi Arabia within three years.

There are a number of factors that make Saudi Arabia particularly attractive for vaccine collaborations and scientific capacity building. They include a robust infrastructure for research and development (R&D) that includes some of the top-ranked universities in the Middle East. There is also a sophisticated understanding by Saudi leaders for the need to invest in science, and the recognition that health is a global security issue as important as other aspects of homeland security. To this extent, we are working with the Saudi Ministry of Health on a variety of emerging disease issues, while helping them to establish a new center for neglected tropical diseases for the MENA region.

Through these activities scientists in Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development and the National School of Tropical Medicine are growing a meaningful footprint in Saudi Arabia. But we are also interested in pursuing additional research collaborations with institutions and universities from Arab nations across the region. We believe the MENA region is rich in scientific potential and opportunities, which one day could rival other international research hubs in places such as Singapore, China and Taiwan. In the meantime, I look forward to keeping the Bilateral U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce informed about our Texas-Saudi Arabia collaborations and our progress towards developing new and life-saving vaccines!

Prof. Peter Hotez is a pediatrician and vaccine scientist. He is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, Director of Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, and Professor in Pediatric Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine