While the process of fully legalizing a vaccine to combat the pervasive Zika virus may take a decade, experts say emergency-use vaccines against the scourge currently ravaging Latin America may arrive by the end of the year.
Reuters reports that at least two groups of researchers are working on competing vaccines to combat Zika in the United States, with American officials hoping to see trials on human beings occurring within the year. “This vaccine is easy to produce. It could be cranked to very high levels in a really short time,” Canadian scientist Gary Kobinger, working on one of the vaccines, told Reuters. Kobinger is hoping to start human testing in August. While it would not be ready for common distribution for years, he hopes governments will allow the use of it in emergency situations.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has echoed reports that an emergency vaccine may arrive by the end of the year. He notes that the virus’s origins – from the mosquito Aedes aegypti – will help scientists. “It is to our advantage that we already have existing vaccine platforms to use as a sort of jumping-off point,” Fauci said in an interview.
Aedes aegypti carries Zika as well as dengue fever, yellow fever, and Chikungunya virus. Mexico approved its first vaccine against Dengue in December. Fauci notes that the vaccines currently in experimentation phases for Zika are based in part on vaccines for dengue and West Nile virus, another disease spread through mosquitos. The West Nile vaccine fell through in production because researchers were unable to find a drug company willing to distribute it. Fauci does not believe this will be the case with Zika, as “we’re already talking to a few companies who are able to partner with us in advanced development.”
Ultimately, experts believe the biggest hurdle between a functional vaccine against Zika and mass public distribution is government regulation. “What would take the longest time would be the process of passing it through the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) and other regulatory agencies to allow it for public use and that may take up to 10 to 12 years,” Nikos Vasilakis, an expert at the Centre for Biodefence and Emerging Infectious Diseases in Galveston, Texas, told the BBC.
Research regarding Zika virus prevention is significantly limited, in large part due to its mild effects on adults. Most medical experts describe its symptoms as milder forms of dengue symptoms, including muscle aches and conjunctivitis. Up to 80 percent of those infected have no symptoms at all. The danger lies in Zika’s effects on the unborn. Brazilian medical experts have discovered a link between Zika contamination in pregnant women and severe brain deformities in newborns. Brazil has recorded over 4,000 cases of microcephaly – a condition in which the infant’s skull is too small for his or her brain – in the past two months, all suspected to be tied to Zika.
On Thursday, experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that up to four million cases of Zika may surface before a cure is found. Medical experts warn the virus has “explosive” pandemic potential.
“Since we do not yet have a vaccine – I am sure that will will, but it will take some time – the best vaccine against the Zika virus is for each and every one of us to fight, in the government as well as society at large, to eliminate all areas in which mosquitos live and reproduce,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said this week. Rouseff announced Brazil would “declare war” on Aedes aegypti, dispating more than 3,000 health workers to fumigate 2016 Summer Olympic venues in Rio de Janeiro as well as another 220,000 armed forces to affected areas to increase awareness. The troops will distribute informational literature as well as insect repellant to pregnant women.
Scientists are also working on ways to diminish the Aedes aegypti population. One British company, Oxitec, is working to genetically modify the mosquito to prevent it from reproducing in significant numbers. “The firm breeds special male mosquitoes that are released into the air and help stop the spread of Zika by passing along a gene to their offspring that make them die young,” CNN explains. This too, will require government agency approval, though test have yielded positive results so far.