Department of Defense pursuing dengue fever vaccine

U.S. Department of Defense health officials are concerned that a resurgence of dengue fever in tropical regions could threaten mission readiness and may pose a public health threat to the United States.

Navy researchers have been working towards the production of a vaccine, but DOD health experts worry that looming defense cuts may endanger its development, according to Military.com.

"It can take about $500 million to commercialize a vaccine," Roxanne Charles said, Military.com reports.

Charles is an official with the Naval Medical Research Center Research Services Directorate. It is her job to make the deals that facilitate the transfer of Navy science and technology to commercial investors that are willing to take on the costs and risk.

The Navy has begun searching for corporate financing to move the new dengue vaccine forward. It must then still be brought through U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and human testing before being used in the field.  

DOD statistics demonstrate that dengue fever has rarely been a problem for U.S. forces since World War II, when it plagued those serving in the Pacific theater. However, 20 percent of American troops who fell ill during the 1993 Operation Restore Hope in Haiti were diagnosed with the disease. The next year, during Operation Restore Democracy, that number rose to 30 percent.

From 1997 to 2006, the U.S. Army reported only 196 cases of dengue fever, but the DOD is still concerned about a larger outbreak, albeit under different conditions.

"Our personnel deployed to dengue endemic regions around the globe are at risk of infection and disease, including the possibility of severe disease upon multiple exposures," Lt. Cmdr. Tad Kochel, the Navy's lead virologist on dengue fever research, said, according to Military.com. "If we have a dengue outbreak within our military population it can be devastating to the operational readiness."

Dengue also poses a risk to American civilians. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that eight percent of Americans returning from countries where dengue is endemic bring the disease back with them.

According to Charles, the military has a tradition of conducting research that has a market beyond military necessity. Some research does not require partnerships and is part of the public domain. For those projects that do need partners, the investors are allowed to market Navy-patented medicines for a profit.

"If a company is going to invest even half [the costs] to get a product to market, they usually require some level of exclusivity," Charles said, Military.com reports. "After all, an FDA-approved, lab tested vaccine doesn't help anyone if it's sitting on a shelf unproduced. The DOD objective is to vaccinate deploying warfighters and also provide an effective vaccine to the civilian public health community."