Emergency vaccine for the Zika virus may be ready by year-end

And not a minute too soon, seeing as how the WHO says the Zika virus could sicken up to 4 million people in the Americas. One of the vaccine’s lead developers and member of a consortium Canadian scientist Gary Kobinger told Reuters that the first round of human testing could start in August, and if that goes well, it may be used during a public health emergency in October or November – way ahead of the timetable estimated by U.S. officials. “The first thing is to be ready for the worst,” he said. “This vaccine is easy to produce. It could be cranked to very high levels in a really short time.”

U.S. officials have said that human clinical trials for two potential vaccines may start by the end of 2016 but an actual vaccine would not be ready for years. “We're already talking to a few companies who are able to partner with us in advanced development,” director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a press conference. There have been 31 cases of Zika infection among U.S. citizens who traveled to areas affected by the virus, according to Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC. “It's possible and even likely that we will see limited outbreaks in the United States,” she said.

The search for a vaccine is being carried out by University of Texas Medical Branch scientists, who have visited Brazil to do research and collect samples. However, they warn that it could take up to 10 years to have regulators approve a vaccine. Likewise, the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil has said that it plans on developing a vaccine in 3-5 years, which they called “record time.” chief executive of Biomedical Corporation Inovio Joseph Kim said that the year-end timeline for the Canadian vaccine – which Kobinger said mimics the Zika virus in order to trigger the immune system response so “when the real thing comes in, then the antibodies are there, the immune system is primed, it's ready to attack right away” – is optimistic but not impossible. “I believe this will be the first to go into human testing. We believe we're ahead of the pack in the race for a Zika vaccine,” Kim said in an interview.

Head of communicable diseases at the WHO’s Pan American Health Organization Marcos Espinal has predicted 3-4 million of Zika cases in the Americas. “The level of alarm is extremely high,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told members of the U.N. health agency's executive board. “Last year, the virus was detected in the Americas, where it is now spreading explosively. As of today, cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region.” WHO Assistant Director Bruce Aylward said that developing a safe and effective vaccine could take at least a year, and 6-9 months to confirm the link between Zika and a birth defect called microcephaly. “In the area of vaccines, I do know that there has been some work done by some groups looking at the feasibility of a Zika virus vaccine. Now something like that, as people know, is going to be a 12-month-plus time frame,” Aylward said.

About 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil, and although a cause-and-effect relationship with Zika is highly suspected it has not been clearly established. Either way, “we are not going to wait for the science to tell us there is a link,” Chan said. “We need to take actions now. The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.”  There is concern about the fate of the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, though International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told reporters that “we will do everything to ensure the health of the athletes and all the visitors.” Meanwhile, White House spokesman Josh ‘The Importance of Being’ Earnest said the federal government is more concerned on pregnant women or impregnable women due to the risk of microcephaly. Some countries have advised women to avoid getting pregnant.

Related: The Zika virus: Chronicle of a viral outbreak foretold