Among the panic-inducing headlines and alarming statistics, there may finally be some positive news regarding the exploding Zika epidemic. An Indian pharmaceutical company has claimed it is making progress on the development of two candidate vaccines for the virus, now considered a global public health emergency.
Reported by Reuters, Bharat Biotech has said the vaccines have been in the works for around a year, slightly longer than the current outbreak has been plaguing Latin America and the Caribbean. While this emerging pathogen may have only recently gained worldwide attention, we’ve known about it since the 1940s, although it hadn’t been high on the list of vaccine priorities due to the fact that infection is mild or symptomless in the majority of people.
Unlike current reactive endeavors, Bharat said it began working on an immunization shot during its efforts to create vaccines for two other diseases: dengue and chikungunya. Alongside yellow fever, all of these are insect-borne viral diseases carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, and all but chikungunya belong to the same family of viruses, the Flaviviridae.
The two vaccines Bharat is developing differ significantly in the way they are made, although details are scarce at the moment. One is a recombinant vaccine, which involves either turning lab microbes into miniature factories, engineering them to churn out parts of the virus that could trigger a protective immune response when administered, or stitching viral genes into a harmless carrier that expresses them in the body. The other method involves the use of a live virus that the researchers inactivate using either heat or chemicals, rendering it unable to cause disease but capable of triggering an immune response.
While it’s good that a company is seemingly ahead of the game, it’s important to note that vaccines still take years to develop. Bharat has said it should be ready for animal trials within the next couple of weeks, but even if those go well it is still a lengthy process to license a candidate vaccine. But if studies produce overwhelmingly positive results, there is a possibility it could be fast-tracked like the experimental Ebola vaccine, a decision made in the face of a devastating outbreak.