As the Zika virus continues to infect people worldwide, health officials in the United States and abroad agree that a vaccine is clearly needed. Unfortunately the rarity of the virus and the fact that a vaccine has never been in development has left researchers scrambling to come up with something safe and effective. However, while vaccines typically take between seven and 15 years to develop, Canadian researchers working on a Zika vaccine told Reuters today that one could be ready for emergency use before the end of 2016.
Canadian researcher Gary Kobinger, who led the development of the Ebola drug called ZMapp, and who is now part of a group of scientists working on developing a Zika vaccine, told Reuters that human testing of this vaccine could begin in August, and if everything goes well, that could allow the vaccine to be used in the event of a public health emergency in October or November. The WHO is meeting on Monday in Geneva to decide whether the Zika outbreak–which is believed to be linked to neurological conditions and developmental issues in newborns–should be considered a public health emergency.
According to the Reuters report, the United States also has two potential candidates for a vaccine, however neither will likely be ready for several years.
As Stat points out, the rapid search for a Zika vaccine is eerily similar to the recent quest for an Ebola vaccine. However, given the devastating effects of an Ebola infection and the fact that there had been outbreaks in the past, scientists had some knowledge and research to build on. This isn’t quite the case with Zika, which causes mild symptoms in only about 20 percent of those infected, and until recently the virus was relatively benign. Now with links to microcephaly and possibly Guillain-Barre syndrome, the need for a vaccine is much greater.
Luckily, though, the Zika virus shares similar characteristics to the chikungunya virus, which researchers have been trying to find a vaccine for, and that has given them a jump-start.
While a vaccine is clearly needed, scientists also say that an understanding of how the Zika virus is causing microcephaly and Guillain-Barre is important, too, to ensure the vaccine is safe for those who need it most.