On Monday, and for the first time since the recent Ebola crisis, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global health emergency in response to the epidemic of the Zika virus.
This time, the WHO reacted more promptly to mobilise its resources due to the rapid spread of Zika, which is now in 26 countries in Latin America.
A worrying number of babies have been born with microcephaly, which is thought to be linked to Zika infection.
There were more than 4,000 cases in Brazil by January 30, up from 3,718 the week before.
A suspected case of sexually-transmitted Zika in Texas in the US has reinforced the need for a public alert.
Condoms, mosquito spray and the draining of stagnant water are the only protection measures currently available.
But this does not kill the larvae that become mosquitoes after only a few days.
This week, several pharmaceutical companies began searching for a vaccine for Zika, the virus which has rarely been studied since it was first detected in 1947 in monkeys in Uganda and for the first time in humans in 1952.
Euronews journalist Nial O’Reilly explores the pharmaceutical puzzle faced by researchers as they seek a vaccine for the Zika virus: “We’re joined by Dr Nicholas Jackson, head of research at Sanofi Pasteur.Thanks for being with us, your company is one of several now embarked on research for a vaccine, how great is the challenge to develop one that is effective, deliverable and safe to where it’s needed?”
Dr Nicholas Jackson: “It’s a global challenge and is one that typically take could many years to do, but the WHO has made it very clear that Zika is an emergency on a global level that needs to dealt with internationally. So, we can respond to that for two reasons. First of all we have the technology and the expertise in house. We also have a wide infrastructure that has been put in place to deal with dengue for our dengue vaccine, so we get a jump start here by being able to tap into that and allow the vaccine development to be accelerated.”
Nial O’ Reilly:“But for all that you’re saying its’ going to take years rather than months?”
Dr Nicholas Jackson:“Yes it will take years to develop a vaccine that’s because we have to go through very careful steps to show that it is safe and effective.”
Nial O’ Reilly:“Even an experimental version is going to take years to get to where it’s needed.”
Dr Nicholas Jackson: “It will take years, but what is important is if we can collaborate globally, with organisations like the WHO in the regions with countries like Brasil, tapping into the global network of experience in Flavivirus we can cut years off the timeline.”
Nial O’ Reilly:“But without this collaboration, and without an effective and safe vaccine. How serious could this epidemic, this outbreak of Zika become?”
Dr Nicholas Jackson:“Well the WHO has been explicitly clear. There is a potential association with severe congenital complications and also there is a potential neurological disorder that has been associated with Zika in adults, so for that reason this is being treated very seriously, but we mustn’t forget that the mosquito that is transmitting Zika is incredibly efficient at transferring it. This mosquito has spread dengue all around the world in the tropical regions.”
Nial O’ Reilly:“And dengue is similar?”
Dr Nicholas Jackson:“Dengue is a similar virus and belongs to the same family as Zika, this mosquito is highly domesticated it lives in your home, its under your kitchen table, it bites very aggressively and its taken dengue to a hundred countries around the world.”
Nial O’ Reilly:“And what about the potential for mutation of the virus. That would surely put you at a big disadvantage in terms of developing a vaccine?”
Dr Nicholas Jackson:“Well the virus does mutate, but actually when you look at the available genetic information the actual Zika virus is quite well conserved, it’s about 95 percent, so it’s only a small proportion of the virus’s genetic code that is different. So that does make it a relatively easy target compared to some other viruses.”
Nial O’ Reilly:“The target group is pregnant women, you obviously can’t test on pregnant women so that again could be another factor which slows the research down?”
Dr Nicholas Jackson:“Actually if the neurological disorder, Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes ascending paralysis, if that is confirmed to be associated with Zika then we need a vaccine to prevent that disease as well, which would be all ages potentially and both genders. We certainly recognise the priority here is potentially women thinking of becoming pregnant, who would really benefit from a vaccine that prevents the disease.”
Nial O’ Reilly:“This is an outbreak which could spread to Europe, because this virus is now present in the south of France, is that right?”
Dr Nicholas Jackson:“The mosquitoes that could transmit and are transmitting Zika have been identified in southern Europe and across area of the United States, and that is what makes this frightening and if there is this association with these clinical complications it is going to be of great concern for public health.”