Zika is now present in 23 countries and territories in the Americas. Brazil, the hardest-hit country, has reported around 3,700 cases of the devastating birth defect called microcephaly that are strongly suspected to be related to Zika.
The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO), stung by criticism that it reacted too slowly to West Africa's Ebola epidemic, convenes an emergency meeting on January 25 to help determine its response to the spread of the virus.
|Gleyse Kelly holds her daugther Maria Geovana, who has microcephaly, in Recife, Brazil, January 25, 2016. Health authorities in the Brazilian state at the center of a rapidly spreading Zika outbreak have been overwhelmed by the alarming surge in cases of babies born with microcephaly, a neurological disorder associated to the mosquito-borne virus
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has activated an emergency operations center staffed around the clock to address Zika, agency officials told Reuters.
On January 28, the WHO said as many as 4 million people in the Americas may become infected by Zika, adding urgency to the research efforts. Vaccine developers made clear a vaccine for widespread public use is at least months, if not years, away.
The closest prospect may be from a consortium including drugmaker Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc (INO.O) that could have a vaccine ready for emergency use before year-end, according to one of its lead developers. Inovio's share price gained more than 15 percent in Friday trading.
Canadian scientist Gary Kobinger told Reuters on Thursday the first stage of testing on humans could begin as early as August. If successful, the vaccine might be used during a public health emergency by October or November, said Kobinger, who helped develop a trial vaccine for the Ebola virus.
Privately owned vaccine developer Hawaii Biotech Inc said it began a formal program to test a Zika vaccine last fall as the virus started to gain traction in Brazil, although it has no timetable yet for clinical trials.
"Right now, we are in the pre-clinical stage, as I suspect everyone is," Chief Executive Officer Dr. Elliot Parks told Reuters.
Another private vaccine developer, Boston-based Replikins Ltd, said it was preparing to start animal studies on a Zika vaccine in the next 10 days. Data from the trials on mice and rabbits would likely be out in the next couple of months, Replikins Chairman Samuel Bogoch told Reuters.
"No one has the US$500 million on hand to take it (a vaccine) all the way to human trials. Somewhere along the course we hope to have big pockets join us," Bogoch said.