Nearly 70 companies and institutions worldwide are currently developing tools to fight the Zika virus — a hefty investment that the World Health Organization (WHO) says is miles ahead of the research effort previously devoted to Ebola.
While the pipeline of drugs and vaccines for Zika is still months, and possibly years, away, the United Nation’s health arm called it “a major advance” compared to the response to Ebola over the last two years.
A total of 31 organizations are working on diagnostics, while 18 are focused on vaccines, 10 on combating mosquitoes and eight on developing treatments, as of March 2. That work is “at various stages of early development,” with the first glimpse of a vaccine available by May.
Most of the research and development currently underway is devoted to diagnostics, as it remains extremely difficult to test for the Zika virus. A “first draft” of one diagnostic test is expected to be finalized in mid-April, officials said.
The WHO has made a strong effort to get ahead of the Zika virus after bungling the organization's early response to the Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in the 2014 outbreak.
But unlike the deadly Ebola virus, the Zika virus poses little risks to adults, except for pregnant woman.
No vaccine or treatment has yet been tested on humans, and the disease's effects, including its link to birth defects, remain mostly unknown.
The virus, which is mostly spread by mosquitoes, is quickly expanding its reach. Cases in Puerto Rico are doubling almost weekly, and the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a trip there last week.
"Until a few months ago, no one had any idea that Zika could cause birth defects," CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters Tuesday during his trip. The CDC has said it expects the virus to begin spreading in the U.S. by this spring.