Researchers say developing a vaccine for the Zika virus – suspected of causing brain damage in babies – could take up to five years, as health experts called for new incentives for drug companies. The Zika outbreak, which the World Health Organization says is likely to spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile, follows the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which also caught health authorities off guard. “We’ve got no drugs and we’ve got no vaccines. It’s a case of deja vu because that’s exactly what we were saying with Ebola,” Trudie Lang, a professor of global health at the University of Oxford, told Reuters. “It’s really important to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible.”
Large drugmakers’ investment in tropical disease vaccines with uncertain commercial prospects has so far been patchy, but the pace of the outbreak has demonstrated how quickly little-known diseases can emerge as global threats. “We need to have some kind of a plan that makes [companies] feel there is a sustainable solution and not just a one-shot deal over and over again,” Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, said last week.
The Sao Paulo-based Butantan Institute, which is currently leading the research charge on Zika, says it plans to develop a vaccine “in record time”, although its director has warned this is likely to take three to five years. British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline also told Reuters on Monday it was studying the feasibility of using its vaccine technology on Zika, while France’s Sanofi said it was reviewing possibilities.