One of the government's top health experts has an ambitious timeline for the Zika vaccine

The Zika virus is becoming an increasing concern, most recently prompting the White House to ask for $1.8 billion to combat the virus in the US and abroad.

But one expert says a vaccine could be developed in the next 3 years, which is seriously fast.

For the most part, only about one in five people with Zika ever shows symptoms, which most commonly include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes.

The disease has been linked to microcephaly, a typically rare condition in which babies are born with abnormally small brains. This connection has raised concerns about pregnant women contracting the virus.

And there are no vaccines or treatments for Zika.

Which begs the question, how far off is a vaccine?

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases‘ Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a White House press briefing Monday that it won’t be very far off, with Phase 1 trials in humans as early as this summer. That’s because Zika is a flavivirus, as is others like West Nile and Dengue, which both have had vaccines in the works. Fauci said the plan is to take that vaccine design and apply it to Zika, which will hopefully speed things up.

“People say a vaccine won’t be ready for three to five years,” he said. “That’s true if you’re dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s and getting an FDA-approved vaccine. When you’re in an emergency situation, I think we can move much more quickly than that and get an accelerated approval.”

Typically, any new drug or vaccine takes about 10 years to go through all the testing and development necessary to get the FDA’s approval for public use. Getting a vaccine together in under three years would be an incredibly speedy version of this testing process.

Here are the steps Fauci said the experimental vaccine will take:

  • Right now, the NIAID is still assembling all of the pieces, making sure they have the right ingredients for the best vaccine. It will need to be tested in animal models and pass other pre-clinical markers.
  • That way, it can move into early human trials. Fauci said he expects those to start sometime this summer, with Phase 1 (usually on healthy human trials to show that the drug isn’t toxic to humans) wrapping up by the end of 2016.
  • In year 2, the vaccine will go through Phase 2 trials, which means it will be used in patients who might come across the Zika virus. These trials are larger, and the data that comes out of them can either make or break the vaccine by showing how effective it is at stopping the spread of disease.
  • By the end of those trials, because it’s an “emergency situation,” the vaccine could go into widespread use in the areas that need it the most.

This is absolutely a best case scenario: Today, the World Health Organisation said there are 12 groups working on early-stage Zika vaccines, with availability still a few years off.

The increased attention is definitely helpful, but it won’t be quite enough to get a vaccine in early development into humans. Nicholas Jackson, the director of research at Sanofi-Pasteur, the vaccine branch of pharmaceutical company Sanofi told Stat News that his company’s research into a Zika vaccine based on previous flavivirus vaccines should cut some time off a 10-year timeline, but there are still some challenges to addressing a disease that until recently never posed much of a threat.

“We need to understand the basic biology,” he said. “That’s why collaboration will be so important at the international and regional level.”

Zika virus

AP Photo/Salvador Melendez
A city worker fumigates to combat the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus, at the San Judas Community in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016.

Other Zika-fighting options

Vaccines aren’t the only way to stop Zika. One of the best ways to keep the virus at bay is by controlling the mosquitoes responsible for carrying it.

Zika is mostly transmitted through mosquitoes, namely the Aedes aegypti. It’s a tropical bug that’s great at transmitting diseases like yellow fever, dengue, and Zika. They’re daytime mosquitoes, which means they bite during the day and like hanging out in warm, damp, heavily-populated locations.

Between spraying insecticides and enlisting genetically modified mosquitoes that can cut down on the mosquito population, this might be the best short-term plan to get a grip on the Zika outbreak in the Americas. For individuals living in areas with Zika, using mosquito repellent and wearing longer clothes are both good ways to keep the bugs from biting.

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