A new roadmap to tackle Lassa fever, a growing threat to human health

Today the stakeholders published a Updated Roadmap For research and development for medical countermeasures aimed at fighting Lassa fever. The roadmap authors said the virus is rapidly progressing in terms of therapy and diagnosis, and a vaccine for it is also on the way soon.

Lassa virus causes approximately 100,000 to 300,000 infections each year, including 5,000 to 10,000 deaths, mostly in West Africa. The virus is endemic in Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, and other countries in the region have reported human Lassa fever cases and are at risk of outbreaks. Travel-related cases have been reported worldwide, and climate change threatens to create more endemic areas in Africa.

The virus is typically spread by rodents, although human-to-human transmission can occur through contact with the body fluids of an infected person. Most people infected with the virus have mild to moderate illness, but the infection can be fatal, with a case-fatality rate of 1%. Up to 15% of people hospitalized with severe cases die from the virus, and about 30% of patients with severe illness experience hearing loss after infection.

The roadmap focuses on four main areas: cross-cutting issues, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

From neglected viruses to vaccine candidates, diagnostics

For Robert Garry, PhD, of Tulane University, a subject matter expert and Roadmap Task Force member, seeing the new Roadmap is a sign that progress toward diagnosing, treating and preventing Lassa fever has reached an exciting point.

Gary describes the work done on Lassa over the past two decades as both fast and slow. Unlike the COVID-19 virus, medical countermeasures such as monoclonal antibodies and vaccines have been developed at a traditional pace.

“When I started working on Lassa 20 years ago, it was very neglected,” Gary told CIDRAP News. “Some vaccines are now moving into Phase 2 clinical trials. It will still take a few years for us to make them widely available to people. We're on the right track; it's going to happen.”

Gary said this roadmap will help guide research and development at this critical juncture, where medical countermeasures can help target both the public health and economic threat of the virus.

“People don’t want to invest or do business in this part of the world because of the risk of Lassa,” [but] “This is an economic and health threat,” he said.

Reaching the right audience

Progress must be made cautiously, said Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), which publishes CIDRAP news. Osterholm served as principal investigator of the roadmap manuscript.

“I’m concerned about every potential factor that prevents a vaccine from becoming an immunization,” Osterholm said, calling rising vaccine hesitancy a challenge for any new vaccine released in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m concerned about every potential factor that prevents a vaccine from becoming an immunization.

He said he hoped the roadmap would reach the right people. “You hope it will be read by governments and philanthropic organisations that continue to support this work, as well as pharmaceutical companies.”

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