Menus Subscribe Search
vaccine-diplomacy

(PHOTO: ALEXANDER RATHS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Next Steps in U.S.-Iran Diplomacy: Vaccines

• November 06, 2013 • 11:00 AM

(PHOTO: ALEXANDER RATHS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Two vaccine scientists—one American, one Iranian—offer a unique way to give the nascent relationship between their two countries a shot in the arm.

September’s historic dialogue between President Obama and Iran’s President Rouhani together with calls to seek constructive engagement opens the door to a little known but powerful foreign policy instrument, which could simultaneously create new life-saving vaccines.

The cornerstone of vaccine diplomacy is two or more countries putting aside their ideological differences to engage in an intense and focused scientific collaboration and produce an urgently needed technology that serves humanity.

In modern times, the first triumph of vaccine diplomacy occurred in the decade that began following the death of Stalin in 1953. Together, Dr. Albert B. Sabin in the U.S. and his Soviet virology counterpart each received back channel permission to jointly develop and then test a prototype oral polio vaccine on more than 10 million children in the USSR. The successful results led to the licensure of the oral polio vaccine in 1962, the elimination of polio in the U.S. in 1979, and ultimately the eradication of polio in all but three countries. Similar international cooperation with the Soviets to improve the vaccine was a key step resulting in the global eradication of smallpox.

Both the U.S. and Iran are under serious threat from several neglected tropical diseases that have emerged in our countries because of a variety of factors, including extreme poverty, urbanization, population growth, and possibly climate change.

Today, both the U.S. and Iran are under serious threat from several neglected tropical diseases that have emerged in our countries because of a variety of factors, including extreme poverty, urbanization, population growth, and possibly climate change. They include dengue fever, a mosquito-transmitted viral infection that results in hemorrhage, shock, and death. Dengue has recently emerged on the U.S. Gulf Coast and in southeastern Iran neighboring Pakistan. Kinetoplastid infections such as Chagas disease, a cause of severe heart disease, are now widespread among the poor in Texas and the southern U.S. where over 300,000 cases occur, while leishmaniasis, a severely disfiguring skin disease, affects 100,000 or more Iranians, and has also emerged in Texas and Oklahoma. Worm infections are still commonly found in impoverished areas in both countries, and where infections overall account for a significant amount of the health care burdens.

Both the U.S. and Iran would benefit enormously from research leading to the development and joint testing of vaccines against these neglected tropical diseases. Our recent investigations reveal that the extreme poor living in middle income and wealthy countries suffer as much from these conditions as those in the poorest countries in Africa, so that all of the world’s people living in poverty would benefit from new vaccines. Unfortunately because there is no major commercial market for neglected tropical disease vaccines (with the exception of dengue) the multinational pharmaceutical companies are not attempting to produce them.

In Iran, both fundamental and epidemiological research is conducted on a number of neglected tropical diseases including Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, West Nile virus infection, brucellosis, leptospirosis, echinococcosis, fascioliasis, and intestinal worms. Iranian scientists have made several attempts at vaccines for some of their tropical infections, including prototype leishmaniasis vaccines made from live or killed whole parasites. However the efficacy and safety of such vaccines has thwarted further development along those lines. Nascent efforts to develop a safer and more effective vaccine through advanced genetic engineering—so called recombinant vaccines—are beginning, but a U.S. collaboration to accelerate their development will be needed. In addition, in order to enhance the efficacy of a recombinant leishmaniasis vaccine there may be requirements to add novel substances that increase the body’s immune response, but the best of these immunostimulants are currently only available in the West and can’t easily (or possibly legally) be shipped to Iran. Ultimately such steps would help to ensure future success in terms of producing a vaccine that would be widely used in the Middle East and adjoining regions of North Africa and Central Asia.

Indeed, such vaccines could be developed in the non-profit sector through joint activities of U.S.-based product development partnerships through support of the Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other sources, together with Iranian institutions, such as the Tehran University and the Razi Serum and Vaccine Institute. However, meaningful scientific collaboration to actually produce such products is not currently practical given both financial and political constraints, including the need to overcome fears of potentially producing so-called “dual use” technologies. Therefore, high-level discussions need to first take place between the U.S. Department of State and its Iranian counterpart to actively encourage and support joint vaccine development, and then implement steps to effectively shape policy and launch the first stages of vaccine product development, including antigen discovery, process development, pilot manufacture, regulatory filing, and initial clinical testing.

Vaccine diplomacy’s modern day track record is impressive, having led to the global eradication of smallpox and the near-elimination of polio. It occurred because the U.S. and USSR put aside their differences during the Cold War. We now have an opening and potential path to do the same between the U.S. and Iran.

Peter Hotez and Mohammad Rokni
Peter Hotez is president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development; dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine; and Baker Institute Fellow in Disease and Poverty. Mohammad B. Rokni is professor of Medical Parasitology and Mycology in the School of Public Health at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.