WHO chief scientist: Zika vaccine is not far off

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The FINANCIAL — The Zika virus has hit the headlines all over the world as people fear it could be linked to microcephaly in babies, which causes them be born with abnormally small heads.

On February 17 Parliament’s public health committee discussed the issue with representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO). After the hearing we talked to Dr Roberto Bertollini, WHO’s chief scientist and EU representative, who assured that Zika was a “mild disease” that we were ready to deal with.

The virus has been known since 1947: why isn’t there a vaccine yet?

This is one of many diseases that we are aware of but that we do not have a vaccine for because they are confined to certain areas or are mild, like in this case. The first concerns were raised only recently when the first cases of microcephaly in French Polynesia were detected in 2013-2014. Now the situation is much more serious and there is a push from public opinion and governments to develop these vaccines.

How long it will take to develop a vaccine? Are we likely to succeed?

I think it will be successful. We now have a lot of experience with Ebola vaccination. We have been able to develop an almost complete Ebola vaccine in a very short time. We are pretty optimistic that we will develop at least a pre-vaccine suitable for trials in the next 15-18 months. The Ebola case was a major lesson for many people. There has been a major change in attitude.

Is there a risk of the disease spreading to Europe? Are we prepared for it?

The worst case scenario would be that the mosquitos come to Europe and start biting people and spreading the disease. It is also possible that it would happen through existing mosquitos that are already endemic to some countries in southern Europe.

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The best case scenario is that we are able to isolate areas where outbreaks occur, eliminating the mosquitos and then controlling the infection. In my view this is the most likely scenario, as we have a very strong public health system and now that we are aware of the problem, we can detect an outbreak very quickly.

Is it certain that microcephaly is caused by mosquitos carrying Zika? Or are there other factors that could be responsible?

The virus was isolated in malformed babies so the association is very strong. But of course we cannot exclude other factors such as genetic factors or other viruses.

Some suggest that microcephaly could be caused by pesticides such as pyriproxyfen that have been added to drinking water. Is that a possibility?

This is a pesticide that has been widely used for more than 20 years. There has been never a single observation of malformation. It is considered so safe that it is used to disinfect drinking water, so for the moment I do not think there is any substance to these allegations.

Do you think the mosquito eradication programmes will be effective? What do you think about plans to release genetically modified mosquitos and Wolbachia bacteria?

Mosquitos are now resistant to a number of insecticides, therefore we need new weapons. There are three possibilities. The first one is these genetically modified mosquitos, which do not transmit the disease. Second is the sterilisation of male mosquitos through radiation. Third is these bacteria which also make male mosquitos unfertile. I think they can be extremely effective and better than using tons of pesticide to which the mosquitos are becoming more and more resistant.

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WHO just announced they will need millions of dollars to fund research: do you expect the EU to provide some funding?

Yes. We have asked for about $53 million dollars, but only $25-28 million will be for WHO. The rest will go to other organisation such as UNICEF.


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