Fever pace for Zika

Zika’s momentum could push nucleic acid vaccines over the finish line

In less than two years since emerging as a global threat, the Zika virus has prompted an unprecedented acceleration of public and private translational research that has already put three vaccine candidates in the clinic. The payoff is not just charity: drug developers have a good chance of seeing new technologies that have lingered in development make it to market for the first time.

To some degree, the field got lucky with research on the related dengue virus having paved the way with key information about flavivirus biology, such as which antigens were likely to be immunogenic. Likewise, dogged experimentation in multiple diseases generated a suite of next-generation technologies ripe for use. But the catalyst for combining these to produce viable clinical candidates in record time was the urgency created by Zika, following lessons learned from the prior Ebola epidemic that caught the infectious disease community off guard.

As the Latin American Zika outbreak emerged in 2015, academics and companies jumped into the field, producing an explosion of scientific literature on the virus’ effects in patients and preclinical models, as well as the biology underlying its key antigens, life cycle and tropism. Yearly counts of Zika papers in PubMed, which numbered less than five papers per year between 1952 and 2013, climbed three orders of magnitude in the last three years (see “Zika’s Exponential Moment”).

Figure: Zika's exponential moment

First discovered in 1947, Zika virus has only been considered an acute threat to worldwide public health in the last two years. The number of Zika-related papers has climbed three orders of magnitude since 2013. Source: PubMed

“I think I have never seen a field move so quickly in my career,” said Dan Barouch, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research. “A lot of people wanted to try to contribute what they could to solving this problem, and are utilizing platforms and tools that have been developed over the years for other reasons.”

The last six months alone have seen at least six high-profile papers featuring Zika vaccines and therapeutics that are now in development.

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