New Delhi: Bharat Biotech International Pvt. Ltd on Wednesday unveiled two vaccine candidates to protect humans against the outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus that may cause birth defects when pregnant women are infected. The virus has already spread to 22 countries.

Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech claimed it is probably the first in the world to file for a global patent for Zika vaccine candidates which it calls Zikavac. The candidate, though, may take years for trials to be complete, before making it to the final vaccine stage.

The two candidates include an inactivated vaccine that has reached the stage of pre-clinical testing in animals, and a recombinant vaccine. “Currently, our efforts are towards scale-up and characterization of the vaccine product. Our interest in Zika virus, an obscure virus when we started the project a year ago, was that the clinical features at an early stage of infection are indistinguishable from that of dengue and chikungunya," said the company in a press release.

“The first thing is to be prepared for the worst," said Krishna Ella, chairman of vaccine maker Bharat Biotech, adding the company hopes to announce the arrival of Zikavac to the world as early as possible.

“Considering that women of childbearing age and pregnant women are the prime target group for the Zika virus vaccine, we consider safety as the overriding factor in development of a new vaccine for this virus," said Sumathy K., director, research and development at Bharat Biotech. “The vaccine methods developed early on, before the devastating consequences of the epidemic in Brazil came to light provided us a push to accelerate vaccine development," she added.

The World Health Organization on Monday declared that the recent observed increase in clusters of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America which is affected by Zika virus, constitute a public health emergency of international concern.

“In the absence of knowledge on viral pathogenesis and immune correlates required for protection, an early start in vaccine development has nevertheless provided a fair advantage to face the eventuality of an epidemic outbreak in the region," Sumathy added.

Companies across the world are racing to develop vaccines against Zika virus, including French pharmaceutical company Sanofi SA, NewLink Genetic Corp. in the US, and Australian company Sementis Ltd. which is working in collaboration with University of South Australia.

Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine division of drugmaker Sanofi, on Tuesday launched a vaccine research and development project aimed at preventing infections from the virus.

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