by Amanda Conschafter, blog editor
Research recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms the mosquito-borne Zika virus’ danger for pregnant women. Meanwhile, a study in Brazil suggests that a mosquito common in North America might also be capable of transmitting the virus. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are scrambling to create a Zika vaccine. But the slow pace of the vaccination development is feeding frustration – and raising questions about how policy balances drug safety with global health in the face of a pandemic.
Zika’s Impact on Pregnant Women
In a study of women whose fetuses ranged from five to 38 weeks gestation, 29 percent of those with Zika virus showed signs of fetal abnormality. Complications included lesions of the central nervous system, abnormal volume of amniotic fluid and even third-trimester fetal death. Another study, designed to determine how Zika may cause microcephaly, has found that the virus attacks cells forming the outer layer of a fetus’ brain.
As reported by PBS Newshour, one of America’s most common mosquitos could be a carrier of the Zika virus. The report reflects preliminary findings from Brazil, where researchers discovered that the Culex family of mosquitos can be infected with Zika and produce it in their salivary glands. This could enable them to transmit it to humans. The Culex mosquitos are common across the U.S. and Europe and have been known to spread other viruses, such as West Nile.
Vaccine Development Policy
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that roughly 15 different companies are working to create a vaccine for the Zika virus. The World Health Organization’s declaration that Zika is a public health emergency may help to expedite efforts, but the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has acknowledged that Zika vaccines are “unlikely to be widely available for a few years.”
The scenario invites comparisons to the most recent Ebola outbreak. Despite an expedited timeline, tests on an Ebola vaccine are still ongoing – while the West Africa epidemic has already subsided.
It also underlines concerns about how to address pandemics in a timely fashion while also ensuring drug safety. Vaccines efforts of past decades, such as 20th century research for a polio vaccine, favored expediency over caution. Scientist Peter Salk even tried his first polio vaccine on his own family members.
Over time, regulatory frameworks have evolved to prioritize caution and protection for clinical trials participants. But the trade-off may have been quicker treatment options for desperate patients. Thus, regulators’ work continues as they try to balance the power of a growing pandemic against the risks of new medication.