Last week World Health Organisation (WHO) assistant director general, Marie-Paule Kieny said the suspected link between Zika virus infection and microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is likely to be confirmed “in a few weeks.”
She also told reporters gathered at the press conference in Geneva, Switzerland that pharmaceutical industry interest in Zika has increased, explaining that at least 15 companies are either developing a candidate already or actively considering doing so.
But despite this progress, Kieny warned that the most advanced vaccine candidate is still 18 months from trials and said that the lack of validated animal models for Zika infection is slowing developent.
This was reiterated by a WHO spokeswoman who told us: “Animal model development is still at an early stage for Zika, and indeed this is one of the limiting factors in moving faster for R&D.”
US NIAID animal studies
The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) told us that, despite the lack of Zika models, it is already funding animal studies.
“While the ultimate importance of animal research in NIAID’s response to Zika virus is unknown at this point, we are proceeding with animal studies to help in our evaluations.”
The organisation is funding studies in mice and nonhuman primates that are focused on “the suspected association between Zika virus and microcephaly” as well as “studies in rats to screen therapeutics.”
The NIAID also suggested technologies used to develop vaccines and tests for related diseases - dengue, Chikungunya and yellow fever virus - could be adapted for diagnostic and preventative applications.
"Researchers have already made significant advances on developing diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for viruses similar to Zika, so we are hoping that adapting those tools will not be overly challenging, and might not require extensive animal modelling."
The WHO also said its department of child and maternal health is one of a number of groups working on the potential link between Zika and microcephaly.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has a similar focus. A spokeswoman for the UK University told us researchers in Brazil are conducting a case control study of newborn babies to characterise the link between Zika and microcephaly.
She added that the team “is also preparing cohort studies of pregnant women who develop Zika, to establish the risk of microcephaly associated with infection at different stages, and of babies born with microcephaly, to track their development.”