How Far Away is a Viable Vaccine for the Zika Virus?

Man spraying insects- pest controlOf the many thousands of drugs that are synthesized in the Research and Development stage of drug development, only a small percentage, one in 5,000, will successfully pass through clinical trials and FDA approval, and on to manufacturing.

A February 15 report from The Washington Post paints a bleak picture of the health crisis caused in part by the Zika virus outbreak. One doctor told the newspaper, “little by little, medical care is disappearing.”

So far, the Venezuelan government has said the country has at least 5,000 confirmed cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus; however, public health experts warn that the actual number could be much, much higher.

Independent estimates go as high as more than 500,000 cases, second only to the number of cases in Brazil. Already, the government in Venezuela has confirmed 255 cases of the related Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes paralysis. Doctors say they expect to start seeing the first cases of microcephaly, the dreaded birth defect associated with Zika, in April of this year.

While citizens around the Americas are living in fear of the Zika virus, pharmaceutical companies are rushing to develop a much-needed vaccine. Bloomberg recently reported the sensational headline, “Zika Fears Spur Pharmaceutical Gold Rush Amid Vaccine Vacuum.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has asked for $1.8 billion to address the problem, and at least 15 pharmaceutical companies have reached out to the World Health Organization about working on a possible vaccine.

Still, experts urge caution. Only a very small percentage of drugs every make it past the Research and Development phases, and it could take years to develop a viable vaccine. For instance, in the United States, of all pharmaceutical drugs that go into Research and Development, only 1 in 5,000 pass through clinical trials and gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Even less go to market.

“Everyone is jumping in to do something,” Richard Kuhn, the head of biological sciences at Purdue University, told Bloomberg. “It’s easy to do a few quick experiments and demonstrate some very promising kind of diagnostics or even something that might look like a vaccine. But to actually take that and really move it forward takes a huge amount of infrastructure and expertise and money.”

For reference, it took two decades to develop a vaccine against dengue fever, another mosquito-borne disease and a cousin of the Zika virus.