With the arrival of summer, the spread of a powerful West African virus to the Gulf States is inevitable, according to a local health expert.
A Bethlehem-based manufacturer could bring a rapid diagnostic test for the Zika virus to market that could combat what many are calling a public health crisis. However, officials said OraSure Technologies Inc., the company developing the test, needs to secure more funding to produce it.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania stopped by OraSure this morning to call for a proactive approach from Congress to acquire the $1.9 billion in emergency appropriations, funds he said are needed to fight Zika and allow companies such as OraSure to develop tests to diagnose it.
About 18 months ago, OraSure’s federal partners approached the company to develop an Ebola rapid response test, which the company was successful in developing and transporting to the nations that needed it, said Doug Michels, president and CEO of OraSure Technologies.
“Here we are in 2016, and we are faced with another crisis,” Michels said, describing Zika as a global crisis. “We began development of a rapid Zika test. It’s not yet fully developed, but our hope and our plan is that we will be successful in developing a Zika rapid test and making it available.”
His hope was to make it available, not just to those nations hit hardest, but in other parts of the world.
“We do have a functional prototype; our hope is that development will continue,” Michels said.
Ideally, the company would like to complete the rapid response test by the end of the year and submit it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval, Michels said.
While Michels declined to disclose the financial amount of how much of its work on the test has been self-funded, he said OraSure has self-funded its work on the test so far.
“These emergencies are not part of our usual budget plan,” Michels said. “The funding specifically for development would go toward those activities.”
Michels thanked Casey for his efforts to push for more federal funding to fight the Zika crisis.
“In order to respond, you have to be prepared,” Casey said, describing the need for funding as urgent.
“We don’t need long debates and speeches about this and that. … We need Congress to support it,” Casey said. “Frankly, we are getting late and overdue on appropriating those dollars.”
When pregnant women are infected with the Zika virus, their baby’s brains don’t develop as they should, Casey added.
“We want to make sure that every pregnant woman in the U.S. should have peace of mind that we are working urgently,” Casey said. “The good news is that once that’s done, OraSure knows what to do.”
Brazil is now the hot spot for the virus, but it has since spread rapidly to Central America and parts of the Caribbean, according to Jeffrey Jahre, senior vice president of medical and academic affairs with St. Luke’s University Health Network, based in Fountain Hill.
While it’s unlikely that the U.S. would have a catastrophic event similar to what’s been happening in other parts of the world, the U.S. could have an outbreak, said Jahre, an infectious disease physician.
“To efficiently battle it, we need advanced knowledge; we need an effective rapid diagnostic test,” Jahre said.
The virus is transmitted primarily to people through the bite of an infected mosquito of an Aedes species, but also through sexual contact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.