UPDATED: NIH, Bharat Biotech hold the lead in Zika vaccine race: WHO

Zika developments continued at an accelerated pace this week with the WHO saying that India's Bharat Biotech and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) are farthest along in vaccine work.

NIAID Director Anthony Fauci

The NIH has been able to use past research on the West Nile and dengue viruses to create a hybrid Zika vaccine that should be ready for early stage trials this summer and broad trials at the beginning of next year, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci told the Washington Post. Bharat Biotech, for its part, started working on a Zika vaccine in 2014; it now plans animal trials in the coming weeks, the Business Standard reported.

However, the WHO cautioned that large-scale trials are at least 18 months away. The public health body added Tuesday that genetically modified mosquitos may play a role in the Zika battle. Many experts feel it will be several years before a safe, proven vaccine reaches the market.

John Mascola, director of the NIH's Vaccine Research Center, said the NIH is in contact with commercial partners in case its vaccine is needed on a global scale next year. That instance would see the NIH "hand off" the vaccine to a partner that would manufacture and distribute it, the Washington Post reported.

On Wednesday, Inovio reported that its synthetic vaccine candidate induced a strong immune response in a preclinical study. In its statement, the Plymouth Meeting, PA-based biotech said it plans to begin human trials before the end of the year.

Elsewhere this week, the University of Texas Medical Branch teamed with Brazil's Ministry of Health on Zika vaccine R&D and a Baltimore consortium formed a global Zika task force.

The R&D scramble comes following a spike in microcephaly cases in Brazil suspected to be linked to the virus; Reuters reports that link could be confirmed in the coming weeks. Speaking on the frenzied, urgent pace of R&D, PaxVax CEO Nima Farzan told FierceVaccines last week that governments and nongovernmental organizations should create economic incentives for companies to conduct proactive vaccine research. The issue has been highlighted in recent years as public health authorities have been caught off guard by the outbreaks of Ebola, MERS and now Zika.

Five multinational pharmas and several other biotechs have either joined or are considering joining the Zika vaccine race, and the WHO has declared Zika a global health emergency. Sanofi ($SNY) is the largest company to declare a Zika vaccine R&D commitment, hoping to leverage its decades of dengue research. Merck ($MRK), Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), Pfizer ($PFE) and Takeda have also considered entering the space. In total, about 15 companies and/or groups are working on a vaccine, the WHO reported on Friday.

- here's the Washington Post story
- get more from the Business Standard
- see Reuters' take
- read more on the UT partnership
- here's the Inovio release
- see the Baltimore consortium details

Editor's note: This story was updated with new information from Inovio's Zika vaccine R&D.