Background on The Rockefeller Foundation and Zika

Public health in the 20th century was driven by an effort to understand and curb infectious diseases, a goal toward which The Rockefeller Foundation invested billions of dollars.

From our earliest days as a global foundation, as we supported research and public health programs more broadly, we developed a laser-focus on finding a way to control and ultimately prevent yellow fever. This included establishing virus research institutes around the world, where Foundation employees worked alongside others and ultimately created the yellow fever vaccine that has saved millions of lives. Along the way, Foundation scientists discovered a number of other viruses—including one that is in headlines today: Zika.

Zika was first discovered at the Foundation-supported Virus Research Institute in Entebbe, Uganda in 1947, and a sample of the virus was given to ATCC (a nonprofit organization that authenticates and preserves microorganisms for research) by J. Casals of The Rockefeller Foundation in 1953.  This appears to be the source of the rumor that The Rockefeller Foundation “patented” the virus. In fact there is no indication that The Rockefeller Foundation holds or has filed for any patent on the Zika virus or has received any royalties or payments.

Other viruses that were identified at the Virus Research Institute in Entebbe during this time included Rift Valley Fever virus, Mengo encephalomyelitis, and Semliki Forest virus.

We don’t hear much about those other viruses, just as Zika was not a household name in the Western Hemisphere until recently. But much like with Zika, in a day and age where all it takes is person who has been bitten by one infected mosquito to board an airplane and carry a debilitating or fatal disease from one continent to another, it is likely only a matter of time until largely unknown viruses, or new and deadly pathogens (think SARS or MERS), are making headlines.

It is for this reason that today, in the 21st century, The Rockefeller Foundation’ laser-focus when it comes to health is on building resilient health systems. In a century characterized by globalization, urbanization, and climate change, our interconnected world means that, as with Zika, what happens in another hemisphere doesn’t stay there. Resilient health systems are designed so that new vectors don’t take down communities or paralyze health care services. Rather a resilient health system is aware of the epidemiologic landscape, is ready to handle whatever new needs arise, communicates clearly and responsibly to those it serves, and offers universal coverage so that people won’t hesitate to get care that they need – which is especially critical during an outbreak.

Today, the Foundation relies not on its own research institutes and scientists around the world, but rather on an incredible network of grantees who are every day contributing to our vision for not only more resilient health systems, but a more resilient world. Because if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t prevent everything – making resilience all the more of an imperative for our present and future.