Does the Zika virus have pandemic potential? That's the question weighing on the minds of researchers and anxious onlookers as they watch the mosquito-borne illness spread outward from its recent epicenter in Brazil.
Zika virus fear gains steam
Thus far, the Zika virus, which has been predominantly associated with mild symptoms in adults that include fever, rash, headache, and joint pain, has been associated with about 1.5 million cases in Brazil. The World Health Organization is predicting the Americas could see upwards of 3 million to 4 million confirmed transmissions in 2016. It's worth pointing out that only about one in five people who carry the virus actually get sick from it.
The concern with the Zika virus, which WHO has declared a global health emergency, is the potential impact it may be having on infants. Brazil, the hotbed of Zika virus activity, has seen a nearly 30-fold jump from normal in births with microcephaly, a condition where the brain does not fully develop, leading to an abnormally small head. The correlation between Zika and microcephaly leads researchers to believe the two are linked, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to concretely prove the connection.
These uncertainties and the rapid spread of the disease -- 51 cases have been reported in the U.S. as of Tuesday, spanning 13 states and Washington, D.C. -- have urged regulators to press for immediate action in the U.S. and around the globe. The CDC alone wants $1.8 billion apportioned to fighting the Zika virus. Of this request, $828 million would go to the CDC, $200 million into an accelerated vaccination program with the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration, $250 million toward Puerto Rico as a one-year Medicaid funds increase, and $210 million for the creation of a new "just in case" fund to respond to outbreaks in the United States (should they occur). The remainder of the money would be used to help other countries fight the Zika virus.
Drug developers step into the spotlight
Pandemic fears are certainly taking over, and some drug developers researching a Zika virus cure have found themselves as big beneficiaries. Perhaps none more so than Intrexon (NASDAQ:XON).
Intrexon sort of stepped into the spotlight with its almost Nostradamus-like acquisition of Oxitec last summer, which has a myriad of global disease programs in development, including one to combat mosquito-borne viruses like Zika and dengue. Intrexon's solution is to genetically modify male mosquitoes to pass along a gene to the next-generation of mosquitoes that will kill them before reaching the reproductive adult stage. The end result should be a dramatic reduction in the mosquito population, and a correlative drop in mosquito-borne viruses.
Of course, Intrexon isn't the only rodeo in town. Inovio Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:INO) and GeneOne LifeScience announced a collaboration a few weeks back to develop a Zika virus vaccine that would soon go into preclinical testing and, if successful, jump into human clinical trials before the end of the year. The advantage of this partnership is Inovio's DNA-based SynCon drug development platform which should allow a preclinical-worthy vaccine to be developed pretty quickly.
The other player here is Cerus (NASDAQ:CERS), which is more of a niche-inspired combatant. Cerus' Intercept blood system is a technology that uses ultraviolet light to kill pathogens found in blood, making Intercept a potentially useful tool for screening blood transfusions. Intercept has been approved in Europe for more than a decade, and a recently announced multi-year deal with the American Red Cross should give Cerus improved access to U.S. markets.
Three things Intrexon needs for its Zika virus cure to be a success
Intrexon's approach is definitely among the most unique I've seen to fight the Zika virus, and some analysts have suggested that at its peak, Intrexon's solution could generate $200 million to $400 million annually. However, in order for that happen Intrexon would need three things to happen.
1. First-in-class approval, and first to market
First, Intrexon would need to be given clearance to take its genetically modified male mosquitoes beyond just the testing stage (which it's doing in Panama, Brazil, and the Cayman Islands at present). If Intrexon's solution proves viable in trials, it would likely be given quick clearance to be implemented on a broader scale. Considering that Cerus' Intercept has a niche purpose, and Inovio appears to be seemingly months, or even more than a year, behind Intrexon in the development process, Intrexon has a clear path to be the first-in-class solution to mosquito-borne viruses. Being first to market would come with probable competitive and pricing advantages for Intrexon.
2. Global governments to actively participate
Now for the first of two big wild cards. The second component to Intrexon's success is that it would need governments across the Americas to jump on board. Just as governments would back-stock millions of doses of a vaccine to a particular disease, in order for Intrexon's Zika virus solution to be economically viable it would need global governments to get on board. I doubt you'd have much of an issue convincing Brazil, but it could be a lot tougher to get more sparsely diagnosed regions to agree that genetically modified male mosquitoes are a necessity.
Along those same lines, we have to wonder about the negative environmental impacts of reducing the mosquito population. While known occasionally as flower pollinators, mosquitos are a needed food source for aquatic life, so governments would also need to weigh exactly how drastic they want to be in their efforts to curb the Zika virus. Keep in mind, despite a rise in microcepahly, an infant is still far more likely to die of the common flu virus. Zika may be a possible pandemic, but it's not on the same scale as Ebola or H5N1.
3. Continued disease proliferation
The other wild card, and the third thing that Intrexon would need to occur, is for the Zika virus to continue to spread when and if the solution gains wider approval. For example, we saw nothing short of a half-dozen drug developers scrambling to develop an Ebola cure in 2014. Then what happened? Nations worked together to get the disease under control, eradicating its spread internally before a vaccine could be successfully developed and approved.
As we look out to Brazil, the use of sprays and pesticides has been stepped up in a big way to control the mosquito population. There's nothing that prevents countries from working with one another to halt the spread of Zika well before Intrexon's Zika virus solution is officially available on a broad scale.
Do I think Intrexon's solution will work? It certainly has the inside track and the most viable solution for the time being. However, the resilience nations have shown in the past to prevent epidemics and pandemics from spreading also leads me to believe that there would be little recurring revenue for Intrexon beyond perhaps a one-time surge.
Translation: I'd strongly urge investors not to get too caught up in the Zika virus hype.