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Zika, the new buzzword

In both the print and digital mediums, there is enough and more space being allotted to the Zika virus. It has become part of drawing room discussions. We have seen this before, there have been several viruses, many still in need of vaccine.

twitter-logo E Kumar Sharma        Last Updated: February 6, 2016  | 11:36 IST

E Kumar Sharma, Associate Editor
In both the print and digital mediums, there is enough and more space being allotted to the Zika virus. It has become part of drawing room discussions. We have seen this before, there have been several viruses, many still in need of vaccine.

While several questions can be raised and debates could continue, there seem questions that perhaps need a quick answer, at least, at the moment:

1.    How serious is the threat of this virus for India?

2.    If companies are working on a vaccine, like Bharat Biotech in Hyderabad announced it had a candidate, how easy or challenging the road ahead?

3.    Finally, what makes this virus so very special and different from the others?

Talk to experts who have looked at viruses and are familiar with the challenges of vaccine-making, and here is what you gather. On the first question of the threat for India, this is not an unknown virus and has been known to experts since the late 1940s and it is only now being considered as a disease that could become a pandemic.

However, it is still centralised in the Latin America regions. For India, it is today limited more to a travel advisory - avoid travel to Latin America and if you have been there, get yourself tested. Therefore, better to be cautious and prevent what you can. This could mean simple solutions - anything that can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes, avoid.

In short: Be on guard and practice Swachh Bharat as much as you can. At the moment, what seems to be disturbing people about this virus are reports that it can cause problems in pregnant mothers and could lead to microcephaly (children with smaller heads), which can be a malformation for a child.

Now, the second question of challenges before vaccine-makers in India. First, you have to have the right antigen (very loosely, see this as any substance that can cause your immune system to produce antibodies to fight this virus). Also, given that vaccine development means there is also need to first get the virus into the country and have proper bio-containment facilities to keep it safe and guarded, getting approvals for this is not easy.

Then, the challenges of development. Today, scientists know the family of this virus or know how the family behaves but still do not know the individuals clearly. By family we mean mosquito-borne viruses like dengue, chikunguniya, yellow fever, Japanese Encephalitis and now Zika.

Typically, the development - since any vaccine has to be tested at different stages (with each stage taking time, such as studies on animals, testing for toxicity, then trying on humans and then do them in several phases) - and the regulatory approvals at each stage prior to the final licensing of the product, all together tend to take a lot of time, in some cases as much as six to seven years.

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