April 7, 2014

Vanderbilt Vaccine Center joins global task force to address urgent viral threat

World Health Day 2014 Shines Spotlight on Mosquito-borne Viral Diseases

Female Ades aegypti mosquito. Photo courtesy of the CDC Image Library.

Chikungunya virus, a vector-borne disease that is quickly spread by mosquitoes and causes victims to suffer severe fever and pain, has reached the Caribbean and South America—and is predicted to soon cause outbreaks in the United States. For many years the virus has remained primarily in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. In response to the arrival of the virus in the Western Hemisphere, James Crowe, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, announced today that Vanderbilt’s center will be part of the new Global Virus Network (GVN) Chikungunya Task Force, comprised of top virologists from around the world.

The announcement of the new task force coincides with World Health Day. Vector-borne diseases are the theme for World Health Day 2014, which is celebrated annually on April 7.

“Viruses are among the leading causes of death and disability in the world. Being able to quickly bring together the most knowledgeable researchers without regards to borders and political agendas to address viral threats such as Chikungunya is paramount,” said Global Virus Network co-founder and scientific director Robert Gallo, M.D. Gallo is also the director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The GVN Chikungunya Task Force is composed of 16 virologists representing nine countries. James Crowe, M.D., from Vanderbilt is representing the United States. The additional participating countries include the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Sweden, Grenada, Estonia, South Africa and Thailand. All of the participating members are affiliated with GVN Centers of Excellence. Much of the group’s effort will focus on issues related to more rapid identification of infections, improved treatment options and development of an effective vaccine.

“By being part of this new global collaboration, we will have the opportunity to exchange information that will help in developing not only an effective response to Chikungunya virus but likely a better understanding of how to respond to other viruses that threaten the U.S.,” said Crowe.

Chikungunya was first described following an outbreak in southern Tanzania in 1952. Since then the virus has been identified in dozens of countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, and now the Americas.

There is no specific antiviral drug treatment for Chikungunya, which also presents as dengue, another threatening mosquito-borne infection. Treatment of those infected with Chikungunya is directed primarily at relieving symptoms, which include a very high fever and joint pain. The joint pain is often very debilitating and, in some cases, persists for several months or years. Chikungunya does not cause death directly, but in the presence of other comorbidities it may contribute to a fatal outcome.

A vaccine against Chikungunya does not yet exist; however, it is a key focus the work of Scott Weaver, Ph.D., at the University of Texas Medical Branch.  In addition, as the range of the virus expands, new and rapid diagnostics will be needed to differentiate Chikungunya infections from other viral illnesses and to determine where best to deploy any future vaccines.

The Caribbean’s first cases of Chikungunya occurred in October 2013.  It is estimated that in those few months there have been approximately 15,000 cases. With the area’s high level of tourism, the virus would have many opportunities to quickly spread to other locations. In addition, there is an indication that the type of mosquito connected to the Caribbean cases is common in the United States, Mexico and parts of South America.

“The GVN Chikungunya Task Force will help speed the process to creating vaccines and much-needed diagnostic tools,” said Global Virus Network’s president Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D.  “We look forward to working with public health agencies, including the Pan American Health Organization, to prevent the spread of Chikungunya and mitigate human suffering.”

More information about the Global Virus Network’s Chikungunya Task Force is available by visiting, and more information about Vanderbilt Vaccine Center is available at