In the midst of all the negative press surrounding the Zika virus, there’s finally a glimmer of hope: an Indian pharmaceutical company, Bharat Biotech, has announced that the company is making progress on the development of two candidate vaccines for the virus.
Considering the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared Zika to be a global public health emergency and the first sexually transmitted case of the virus was reported in Texas, it’s about time for news to put our anxieties at somewhat more of an ease.
Although the Zika virus has only gained international attention in the recent weeks, the virus has been affecting Latin America and the Caribbean for much longer. In fact, Bharat Biotech has been developing the two potential immunizations for about a year now.
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The two vaccines are significantly different in the way that they’re made and how they work in the body.
One, a recombinant vaccine, involves either engineering lab microbes to draw out parts of the virus that could trigger a protective immune response when the vaccine is administered, or delivering viral genes via a harmless carrier that expresses them in the body. In this case, this means that the vaccine would contain Zika DNA, but not the virus itself.
The other, an inactivated vaccine, uses a live virus that the researchers “inactivate” via heat or chemicals, which renders it unable to cause disease but still able to trigger an immune response. This means the Bharat vaccine contains whole particles of the Zika virus, but they’ve been tweaked so they can’t cause infection.
While it’s certainly exciting news that scientists are already progressing towards a Zika vaccine, the unfortunate reality is that vaccines take years to develop. The biotech company has said that the vaccines should be ready for animal trials within the next couple of weeks, but even if those trials are passed with flying colors, the process to license a potential vaccine is still a lengthy one.
However, in the wake of a public health emergency, there’s a possibility that the process could be sped up, depending on how much support WHO will give Bharat. Krishna Ella, CEO of Bharat Biotech, told ABC, "We can only produce a vaccine; the international regulatory agency has to decide how fast they want to move.”
As WHO estimates that as many as 4 million people in the Americas will be at risk from the Zika virus by the end of 2016, it’s clear that something needs to be done, and fast. Fingers crossed that Bharat Biotech manages to grace the world as quickly as possible with an effective Zika vaccine.