Drug companies investigate Zika vaccine

  • 26/01/2016

Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is concluding feasibility studies evaluating whether its vaccine technology is suitable for the Zika virus, which has been linked to brain damage in thousands of babies in Brazil.

Zika will likely spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile, the World Health Organisation said on Monday (local time).

The virus has not yet been reported in the continental US, although a woman who fell ill with the virus in Brazil later gave birth to a brain-damaged baby in Hawaii.

Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also known to carry the dengue, yellow fever and Chikungunya viruses.

The likelihood of an Australian outbreak of the Zika virus is "small but real", James Cook University tropical disease expert Scott Ritchie has warned.

"The fact that we get dengue outbreaks means that this movement of mosquito-borne viruses does happen. So it's a real thing," Professor Ritchie told AAP.

"Somebody would travel to say Brazil, get Zika virus there and come back to Cairns, or a South American traveller who's visiting Australia is infected with Zika virus.

"If they're bitten by the mosquitoes over here, the mosquitoes get infected and can potentially transmit the virus."

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has released an updated list of 22 countries where the Zika virus is transmitted, including nations in the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Africa and the Pacific Islands.

In new official advice on the virus, DFAT advises pregnant woman to "consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing".

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika, which typically causes mild fevers and rashes, although about 80 per cent of those infected show no symptoms.

"We're concluding our feasibility studies as quickly as we can to see if our vaccine technology platforms might be suitable for working on Zika," Glaxo spokeswoman Anna Padula said in an email to Reuters.

She declined to provide details but added that vaccine development typically takes 10 to 15 years.

France's Sanofi SA, which won approval late last year for the first dengue vaccine, has said it is reviewing the possibility of applying its technology for Zika.

"However, there are too many unknowns about Zika to reliably judge the ability to research and develop a vaccine effectively," a spokesman said in an email in early January.

Japan's Takeda Pharmaceutical said last week it was entirely focused on addressing dengue, and that its experimental vaccine was not designed to cover Zika.

A spokeswoman for Merck, which will likely be one of the first makers of an Ebola vaccine, said the company was not currently engaged in research to prevent or treat the Zika virus.

"But we are watching closely and connecting with partners to see how our knowledge and capabilities might be useful in helping to accelerate progress on this front," she said.