Outside of the Southwest, few Americans have ever heard of valley fever.
That will soon change. Thanks to climate change, the geographical range of this fungal respiratory disease — technically known as Coccidioides posadasii — is rapidly expanding.
Today, the United States sees about 20,000 reported cases of valley fever in humans each year, the vast majority in Arizona and California. The microscopic spores that cause the disease live in the soil. When they’re disturbed — by traffic, construction or wind — they can be carried through the air and inhaled, which causes infection.
In people with weakened immune systems, valley fever can turn into chronic pneumonia and, on rare occasions, meningitis. The symptoms associated with these conditions often lead physicians to mistakenly diagnose patients as suffering from a bacterial infection and, thus, to inappropriately prescribe antibiotics, accelerating the development of superbugs.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent valley fever or any other fungal disease. Thankfully, there are promising vaccines in development. But they won’t see the light of day until their creators can overcome financial, logistical and bureaucratic challenges.
Valley fever spores thrive in hot, arid environments, which is why in the United States the disease has mostly been confined to the Southwest. The problem is that desert-like areas are expanding as the climate warms, spreading valley fever to the east and north.
As bad as humans have it, dogs have it worse. In the U.S. regions where valley fever is most common, one in 10 canines catch it annually. Besides the pain this causes, it’s a drain on financial resources.
Communities affected by valley fever got tremendous news in 2021 when researchers at the University of Arizona, Colorado State University and the California biotech startup Anivive Lifesciences reported that they had developed an effective canine vaccine.
Though this vaccine won’t be usable in humans, it could help solve a much bigger problem. Common fungal ailments you may have heard of include ringworm, yeast infections and thrush. Less familiar but more dangerous are fungi such as Aspergillus and Candida auris.
Anivive’s product could be a first step toward preventing any of these infections. Yet developing a new vaccine is always a long, slow, expensive process. The company is preparing to submit more trial results for its canine vaccine to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Veterinary Biologics, after which the agency will need to authorize new field studies and eventually review the product for approval.
Anivive also plans to develop a human vaccine for valley fever. The company anticipates that revenue from the canine version could help launch this project. But the firm will need new partners and further funding to see it through.
In the big picture, tackling the fungal threat is about more than just a series of discrete challenges. We also need a mindset shift toward a “one health” approach.
One health means addressing human, animal and environmental problems as part of an interconnected whole. The movement arose in response to zoonotic diseases, which are those that can jump between animals and humans. Today, valley fever perfectly illustrates the importance of one-health thinking, as environmental changes contribute to the spread of a disease among multiple species.
Valley fever is not just a Southwestern problem or a dog problem but part of a growing global fungal threat — one we can overcome by working together.
John Murphy is the chief policy officer at Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a biotechnology advocacy association.