Dengue has been killing hundreds of people each year and the numbers is not going down. We have all been advised to spend 10 minutes every week to clean the pots and other mosquito breeding places around our houses. What else can we do? Is this enough to curtail the problem? Is cleaning around the house enough to deprive these creatures from breeding? Months ago we heard about the sterile male mosquitoes developed through GM technology which was supposed to be released to Pulau Ketam for a field trial. But thanks to the opponents of the technology, it did not materialise.
How about developing vaccines? What is the progress in this area? As a tropical country plagued with various tropical diseases, perhaps we should have a Centre for Research on Tropical Diseases. But again, will this answer the question and provide a solution? Who will head the centre? Who will set its direction and ensure it objectives and mandates are met? How will the funding be channelled? Do we have enough researchers to run it?
To save us all these troubles, Acuvax, a South-Australian based vaccine development company has announced that the dengue fever vaccine is set to begin phase I safety trials in the US through its affiliate company, Hawaii Biotech. This is the first recombinant subunit vaccine for dengue to enter clinical studies. The phase I study will lead to the initial clinical testing of Hawaii Biotech’s tetravalent dengue fever vaccine.
Isn’t that good news? Once the vaccine is approved for use, we can all say good-bye to dengue fever. But do not complain when we have to pay these multinationals premium prices for the vaccine. And do not also sing the same old song that multinationals are monopolising the industry. And for those who are against GM technology, please keep away from this vaccine. You might never know the risk... It is just easier and safer to clean around the house... just 10 minutes every week!
So to answer my question on where the dengue vaccine will come from, probably not from a country that is plagued by dengue. The developed countries know which tree to bark. There is huge potential in this vaccine with a huge marketplace.
If we are serious about our commitment to advance biotechnology and look into the priority areas that will benefit the nation and the people, we need to quickly sit down and analyse what is stopping us from moving forward. What are the stumbling blocks? Human capital? Brain drain? Politics? Getting the right people? Fund management? Perseverance?
Millions of dollars have been pumped into this research. Terra Rossa Capital has injected up to US$1.25 million in equity capital in the ACU subsidiary Acuvax Immunology Services. This is just part of the investment. The total investment to develop this vaccine is certainly much bigger. Could we have afforded this? Perhaps, yes. Looking at the amount spent on Antarctic and Space programmes, we can safely say we have the money. It is again barking the right tree!
By Mahaletchumy Arujanan