A vaccine for the Zika virus, transmitted by mosquitoes and possibly linked to severe birth defects in thousands of infants, could be ready for emergency use before year-end, one of its lead developers says. That timetable is well ahead of estimates from U.S. officials.

 

Canadian scientist Gary Kobinger, part of a consortium working on the vaccine, told Reuters in an interview that the first stage of testing on humans could begin as early as August. If successful, the vaccine could be used during a public health emergency, in October or November. Reuters also reports that while the U.S. has two potential candidates for a Zika vaccine and may begin clinical trials on humans by the end of this year, U.S. officials say there will not be a widely available vaccine for several years.

 

The Zika virus could infect as many as four million people in the Americas—including the southwest U.S.—the World Health Organization (WHO) said this week. Director-General Margaret Chan told members of the U.N. health agency’s executive board that the “level of alarm is extremely high,” concerning the spread of the disease.

 

“Last year, the virus was detected in the Americas, where it is now spreading explosively,” Chan said. “As of today, cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region.”

 

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there have been 31 cases of Zika infection in 12 states and the District of Columbia among U.S. citizens who traveled to areas affected by the virus.

 

“It’s possible, and even likely, that we will see limited outbreaks in the United States,” Dr. Schuchat says.

 

There is no proven vaccine or treatment for Zika, a close cousin of dengue, which causes mild fever and rash. An estimated 80 percent of infected people have no symptoms. However, most troubling is that there are serious concerns about the dangers pregnant women and their babies face.

 

In areas where the virus is present, there has been a corresponding “steep increase in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads and in cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome,” Chan from WHO says, CNN reports. Having small heads can cause severe developmental issues and sometimes death. Guillain-Barre is a rare autoimmune disorder that can lead to life-threatening paralysis.

 

The WHO’s Dr. Bruce Aylward cautions there is no definitive link between Zika and these disorders but he does see a legitimate reason for concern. Dr. Schuchat from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is a “strong” suggestion they are connected, CNN reports.

 

Considering the widespread path of the disease’s infection rate and potential complications for pregnant women, it is good to see progress made so quickly on a possible vaccine—even if it will only be available for emergency use in the short term.

 

“The first thing is to be ready for the worst,” Kobinger, who helped develop a trial vaccine that was successful in fighting Ebola in Guinea, says in the Reuters article. “This vaccine is easy to produce. It could be cranked to very high levels in a really short time.”

 

Kobinger, the lead scientist on this project from Quebec City's Laval University and head of special pathogens at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, is working with the University of Pennsylvania, led by scientist David Weiner, Inovio Pharmaceuticals and South Korea’s GeneOne Life Science.

 

The candidate vaccine Kobinger is working on mimics the virus, triggering the body's immune system, he said.

 

“When the real thing comes in, the antibodies are there, the immune system is primed and it’s ready to attack right away,” Kobinger says.

 

Given the serious nature of potential risk for pregnant women and their babies, I am hopeful the Canadian consortium, and other companies, can create an effective Zika virus quickly.