Nearly a year ago, Zika came onto the world stage in a big way, quickly spreading to more than 50 countries and causing thousands of microcephaly cases. Soon after, the World Health Organization deemed the outbreak an international emergency.
Now, however, WHO is backing away from that "emergency" distinction.
Researchers have demonstrated the link between Zika and microcephaly, and WHO now says that a “robust longer-term” approach is warranted in fighting the virus. It pulled the international emergency label on Friday.
Already, some experts are criticizing the move.
Georgetown University professor Dr. Lawrence Gostin called the WHO’s decision "quite worrying" in a statement, saying it “has provided reason for governments and donors to pull back even more” from an already “lethargic” response.
"That is a recipe for the very lack of preparedness the world has seen time and again with infectious diseases," Gostin wrote.
In response to the Zika emergency, dozens of biopharma companies and organizations signed on to develop vaccines against a virus that, like others before it, largely caught the scientific community off guard.
The situation invites parallels with the Ebola outbreak, which killed thousands of people in Africa as researchers worked feverishly to develop vaccines. The outbreak ultimately waned as promising vaccine candidates advanced through the clinic.
To many in the vaccines community, the issue is familiar. Experts have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the reactive nature of R&D in the face of fast-moving outbreaks. Vaccine development is a long-term process, but the scientific community and industry haven't been able to get ahead of emerging diseases.
In an effort to address this, GlaxoSmithKline has offered some resources to assist in research against viruses for which there isn’t much of a vaccine market, at least not yet.
Zika R&D, for its part, could have more durability, because the research isn't driven only by the public health crisis. There are sales to be had, too, experts say. A vaccine could be conservatively worth $1 billion, as travelers would pay a high price tag for protection before they visit endemic areas.
So far, Inovio, the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research have entered the clinic with Zika candidates. Big Pharmas GSK, Sanofi, and Takeda have each paired with U.S. government agencies to work on vaccines in the field.
WHO's pulling of the emergency moniker doesn't mean it no long supports efforts against the virus, the agency said. In announcing the change, WHO officials said combating Zika will continue to require “intense action.”