While Zika virus continues to ravage parts of Brazil and other surrounding countries, millions of people in other places have never heard of the disease; and while the World Health Organization had recently declared it worthy of coordinated action, the name Zika virus does not strike a chord with million others - Reuters reports.
This in some respects poses a challenge to scientists, because they know very little about the deadly disease sweeping through the Americas and constituting great medical threats to pregnant women and unborn babies among others.
Unlike Ebola which swept through three main countries of West Africa in 2014, provoking instant international response because the deadliness of the Ebola virus makes it a possible candidate for bioterrorism, very little is known about Zika virus with many patients even doubting they actually have it.
According to Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index, there are only 30 mentions for Zika patients while there are 1,043 for Ebola and 2,551 for dengue fever. The Web of Science also shows there are 108 reputable academic papers on Zika since it first surfaced in 2001 compared to over 4,000 papers on Ebola.
Several biotech firms are rising up to develop an effective vaccine for Zika after the US National Institutes of Health, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Butantan Institute of Brazil made calls for quick vaccines. NewLink Genetics which together with Merck developed the first effective Ebola vaccine has showed interest in developing a vaccine for Zika, and so has Sanofi. Takeda Pharmaceutical of Japan and GlaxoSmithKline have also shown interests for a vaccine.
One of the major hurdles the drugmakers must however overcome is the balancing. "To be useful, a Zika vaccine would need to be effective and safe, but it's difficult to do both," said Ben Neuman of the University of Reading in Britain. "It's a balancing act."
An effective vaccine provokes the immune system into a strong response that fights body invasions, but determining the correct immune response for Zika is a great task for pharmaceutical researchers to know. This is very crucial because pregnant women would need vaccination most since Zika has been linked to birth defects in unborn babies.
"It raises special safety considerations in vaccine development because you want to make sure any vaccine is safe for both mother and child," said Takeda's vaccine head Rajeev Venkayya.
Researchers have also come up with the idea of vaccinating young girls so that they can be protected against Zika before they ever become pregnant, with the need to concentrate attention in communities where the mosquitoes that spread the virus are rife.
"For most viruses, there are lots of ways to make a somewhat effective vaccine, but the most effective vaccines target several parts of the virus in different ways," said Neuman.
Don't Miss: See the first leaked Black Friday 2016 Ad
“Multiple targets give the immune system more options, meaning more people are able to develop immunity. Yet an effective vaccine in most people may pack too much punch for others, with the potential to trigger birth defects. It's big concern; and at this stage we just don't know," he added.