It is man versus mosquito. For centuries, mosquito-born illnesses have plagued mankind, but none have gone from a little known, not serious virus to a potential worldwide health crisis as fast as Zika. As the virus spreads rapidly through the Americas, public health officials and pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines are scrambling to stay to deal with both Zika and mosquitoes.
Zika is now present in 23 countries and territories in the Americas. At least 31 people in the U.S. have been infected, but all of them had traveled to affected countries. Additionally, there have been 19 cases in Puerto Rico and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. On Thursday, Jan. 28, the United Nations’ health arm, the World Health Organization (WHO), forecast that as many as 4 million people in the Americas may eventually become infected by the disesase.
Scientists are racing to create a vaccine as the mosquito-borne virus is being blamed for thousands of babies being born with birth defects since the first case was reported last May in Brazil. Now, there is also a possible link to an increase in adults in Zika prone areas getting Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can lead to paralysis. However, vaccine developers caution that a vaccine for widespread public use is months, if not years, away from availability.
While Zika epidemics have been contained in the past to small areas, there were no major health concerns in the aftermath of what was then considered to be a relatively mild illness. This time is different, however, with about 4,000 babies – so far – being born with microcephaly (smaller than normal heads reflecting brain growth problems) in Brazil and both Colombia and Venezuela reporting a jump in Guillain-Barre syndrome cases.
Stung by criticism of a slow worldwide reaction to West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, public health organizations have jumped in to respond to the situation. The United Nations’ health arm, the World Health Organization (WHO), is convening an emergency meeting on Monday to on how best to address the spread of the virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established a 24-hour emergency operations center to address Zika.
Three drug companies are focusing considerable efforts on developing the vaccine. A consortium including drugmaker Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. has indicated they could possibly have a vaccine ready for emergency public health use late Fall. Hawaii Biotech Inc began a program to test a Zika vaccine last fall when the virus really gained traction and the number of cases exploded in Brazil, but they have no timetable set for clinical trials. Another developer, Replikins Ltd, is preparing to start animal studies on a Zika vaccine in the next 10 days. But data from those tests will take months to compile and review before they can began thinking about human usage. Additionally, Brazil’s president has indicated that tests for the development of a vaccine would soon start at the Butantan Institute, one of that country’s leading biomedical research centers.
With no cure or Zika vaccine in site, most countries are scrambling and putting efforts into deal with the spread of the disease by fighting the mosquitos. Thousands of soldiers, health officials, and others have fanned out across several countries to clean up mosquito-prone areas and fumigate.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
TIME: These Companies Are Working on a Zika Vaccine
New York Times: The Latest: Paralyzing Illness Grows in Colombia, Venezuela
Reuters: Race for Zika vaccine gathers momentum as virus spreads
Forbes: Biotech Stocks Soar In Race To Create Zika Vaccine
Photo of Aedes Albopictus mosquito by James Gathany/CDC (Public domain)