FirstWord List: What flavivirus vaccines could jumpstart the race to stem the Zika outbreak?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) brought attention to the Zika outbreak by declaring it a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ last week, which combined with the first official cases being recorded on the continental US is likely to increase calls for action from national governments and public health authorities.

Because most people who are infected with the Zika virus are asymptomatic, antivirals are not a viable treatment strategy, according to Amesh Adalja, a clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Instead, the development of a vaccine will be the most effective means for combatting the outbreak. (See The Q&A: WHO declares Zika outbreak a global emergency – five key questions.)

Unfortunately, despite having been identified in the 1940s, the virus has not been considered a threat to humans (the possible link to congenital problems in pregnant women was only recently identified), so drugmakers looking to develop a vaccine against the Zika virus are starting from scratch. The companies that have expressed an interest in potentially working on a vaccine include GlaxoSmithKline, Inovio Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co., NewLink Genetics, Pfizer, Sanofi and Takeda.

Given the typical development lifecycle, which can often take a decade or more to move from basic science to commercial availability, and because of the speed with which the virus has spread throughout the Americas and the Caribbean after first emerging in Brazil last April, it seems inevitable that drugmakers and regulators might be open to some outside-the-box strategies for tackling the problem.

Adalja believes one such idea could be to modify existing vaccines that were designed for use in preventing infection by other flaviviruses (the same genus that the Zika virus belongs to), which could be used as jumping off points for developing a Zika vaccine.

Below is a list of many of the publicly disclosed vaccines either in development or, in one case, on the market for other flaviviruses.

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