The World Health Organization announced plans on Thursday to create an emergency committee to tackle the rapidly-growing Zika virus as it spreads across the Americas.
The organization said it expects three to four million cases of Zika in the Americas — though it did not specify a time frame for those infections. Margaret Chan, WHO general director, said “the level of concern is extremely high” and pointed to four growing areas of concern.
“First, the possible association of infection with birth malformations and neurological syndromes. Second, the potential for further international spread given the wide geographical distribution of the mosquito vector. Third, the lack of population immunity in newly affected areas. Fourth, the absence of vaccines,” she said in the morning briefing.
Her fourth worry is the one that’s most frightening to government officials. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama called for expedited research, tests, vaccines and treatments for the mosquito-transmitted virus that has been linked to shrunken brains in thousands of babies. The virus, which made its way from Uganda to Brazil in 2014, has now been found in 23 countries. His announcement came hours before Los Angeles health officials confirmed the first case of Zika virus in the Califonia. Cases have also been reported in Texas, Illinois, Florida, and Hawaii.
But a real cure could be decades from existence. Infectious disease experts say a safe and effective Zika virus vaccine is “probably three to 10 years away even with accelerated research.” These experts, who released a study on Zika Wednesday, compared the virus to Dengue Fever, another mosquito-transmitted disease that has been infecting around 400 million people yearly for decades — and a disease for which researchers are still searching for a vaccine.
Developing vaccines for infectious diseases has always been a slow process, particularly when it comes to diseases that primarily affect poor people. It’s rare for drugmakers to financially invest in vaccines that may lack commercial success, and government funding can only go so far — leaving many frustrated.
“We’ve got no drugs and we’ve got no vaccines. It’s a case of deja vu because that’s exactly what we were saying with Ebola,” Trudie Lang, a professor of global health at Oxford University, told Reuters. “It’s really important to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible.”
The authors of Wednesday’s Zika study urged WHO to act quickly in its international response to the virus, unlike its approach to the recent Ebola outbreak, when Chan was criticized for waiting months after the first cross-border transmission of Ebola declaring it a public health emergency.
“A key lesson learned from that searing experience was the need for an intermediate-level response to emerging crises, thus avoiding overreaction while still galvanizing global action,” the researchers wrote.
Thursday’s emergency meeting could be a start. But without a vaccine in sight, Chan remains uncertain. “Questions abound,” she said on Thursday. “We need to get some answers quickly.”