The Zika virus currently on a rampage in the Americas could easily spread to Asia where other mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria are already endemic and drugmakers in the region, and elsewhere, are racing to come up with a vaccine.
The virus, while not deadly to most people, can cause microcephaly in infants born to mothers who are infected. Babies with microcephaly have abnormally small heads and their brains are not developed properly.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday that virus outbreak was an international public health emergency and deserved a global response.
"Most important, we need to set up surveillance sites in low and middle-income countries so that we can detect any change in the reporting patterns of microcephaly at an early stage," Anthony Costello, WHO's director for maternal, child and adolescent health, said in Geneva, according to various media reports.
Data shows that the virus has now spread to 26 countries and territories in the Americas. The virus was isolated in 1947 in rhesus monkeys in Uganda while scientists were studying yellow fever, according to the WHO, and later found in humans in the 1950s. Zika is spread by Aedes mosquitoes.
Several drugmakers in Europe and in Asia have said they have already started major campaigns to develop a vaccine to fight the virus. France's Sanofi ($SNY) announced it would commit to using its Sanofi Pasteur unit to come up with a treatment.
"Sanofi Pasteur is responding to the global call to action to develop a Zika vaccine, given the disease's rapid spread and possible medical complications," said Nicholas Jackson, research head of Sanofi Pasteur, who is leading the Zika vaccine project, according to a report in the Japan Times.
The WHO office for Southeast Asia said countries in the region should "strengthen surveillance and take preventive measures against the Zika virus disease, which is strongly suspected to have a causal relation with clusters of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities."
In addition to Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) said it was wrapping up a feasibility study to see if its vaccine technology was suitable, U.S. drug developer NewLink Genetics said it has started a Zika vaccine project and the University of South Australia said it was developing a vaccine with Australian biotech Sementis, according to the Japan Times report.
Zika was a virus that until just several weeks ago few had heard of, according to a Reuters report. "There are just 30 mentions of Zika in patents, against 1,043 for Ebola and 2,551 for dengue fever, according to Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index," the Reuters report said.
The problem with developing a vaccine for a virus that affects unborn children is that pregnant women are usually excluded from clinical trials until the safety of the test vaccine is established.
In addition to the drug majors in the U.S. and Europe that are seeking a Zika vaccine, Andhra Pradesh-based Biotech International in India said it has already developed two drug candidates for use against Zika and is seeking government approval for animal trials, according to RTT News.