US government looks to private sector for Zika tools

U.S. President Barack Obama convenes a meeting on the Zika virus in the Situation Room of the White House on Jan. 26, 2016. With emergency funding tied up in political disputes, the Obama administration hopes private sector partners will bring new weapons to the Zika fight. Photo by: Pete Souza / The White House

The U.S. State Department is reaching out to private sector partners to help the Obama administration devise new tools to control and treat the Zika virus outbreak in the Americas.

On Wednesday the Secretary of State's Office of Global Partnerships held roundtable discussions with business representatives, and in the coming weeks the administration will announce a “private sector call to action,” according to Amy Pope, deputy homeland security adviser and deputy assistant to the president.

The administration’s outreach effort comes amidst an ongoing battle with Congress over a $1.9 billion supplemental Zika funding request that has been mired in political deadlock.

The administration is seeking partnerships that can unlock vaccines, point of care diagnostics, and new mosquito control options, among other things.

“Frankly, we are here today, because we do not have the tools that we need. We do not have the tools to detect Zika, we do not have the tools to prevent Zika, and we do not have the tools to respond to Zika,” Pope said Wednesday.

The event showcased public-private partnerships that have proven successful in reducing deaths from malaria, another mosquito-borne illness, in hopes that some of those efforts might serve as templates for new coalitions to battle Zika. But discussions also highlighted some of the unique challenges posed by Zika: mosquitos carrying the disease bite during the day, and so bednets are less effective against them; aerial spraying of pesticides is also not a “silver bullet” against this mosquito breed, which is less easily targeted.

The administration’s research has also revealed a communications gap. People “aren’t always taking the disease so seriously,” Pope said. Zika’s impacts tend to be less immediately visible than those of dengue or chikungunya, so people discount its potential impacts. “What we fully expect is that months from now we’ll see the impact of the disease,” Pope said.

U.S. officials were quick to remind potential partners that Zika is neither the first nor the last international pandemic that will require a creative, collaborative response. In the background of this particular effort is a broader administration goal to improve global health security.

Two years ago the White House launched its Global Health Security Agenda, an effort to bring together U.S. government agencies and international partners to better prevent, detect, and respond to global health threats. GHSA participants have sought to expand ownership of global health security goals beyond ministries of health, to other parts of government and to nongovernmental partners.

“We’ve seen from previous crises that the best way to address a situation of this magnitude is to marshal the resources of everyone to help,” said Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary of state for management and resources. “Public-private partnerships have been essential to the whole of society response to malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. But partnerships have to be done right,” Higginbottom said.

A challenge now is to build partnerships that can prove effective against the unique challenges posed by Zika, yet which also lay a groundwork that can be adapted to future, unpredictable health security threats.

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About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.