GENEVA/PARIS The Zika virus could spread to Africa, Asia and southern Europe, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday, as major French drugmaker Sanofi SA (SASY.PA) and others joined the race to create a vaccine.
A day after Geneva-based WHO declared an international public health emergency due to Zika's association with the birth defect microcephaly in Brazil, the United Nations agency said it had launched a global response unit to fight the mosquito-borne virus that is spreading rapidly in Latin America.
Babies born with microcephaly have abnormally small heads and improperly developed brains.
"Most important, we need to set up surveillance sites in low- and middle-income countries so that we can detect any change in the reporting patterns of microcephaly at an early stage," Dr. Anthony Costello said in Geneva. Costello is WHO's director for maternal, child and adolescent health.
Twenty to 30 sites could be established worldwide, mainly in poor countries without robust health care systems.
The Pan American Health Organization said Zika was now spreading in 26 countries and territories in the Americas.
The virus was first identified in 1947 in rhesus monkeys in Uganda while scientists were studying yellow fever, according to the World Health Organization. It was identified in humans in 1952. Zika is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus.
There is no vaccine or treatment for it.
Sanofi's announcement marked the most decisive commitment yet by a major vaccine producer to fight Zika. The company said its Sanofi Pasteur vaccines division would use its expertise in developing vaccines for similar viruses such as yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and dengue.
"Sanofi Pasteur is responding to the global call to action to develop a Zika vaccine given the disease's rapid spread and possible medical complications," said Nicholas Jackson, research head of Sanofi Pasteur, who is leading the Zika vaccine project.
The WHO called for urgent development of better tests to detect the virus in pregnant women and newborn babies.
The new global response unit will build on lessons learned from West Africa's Ebola crisis, Costello said. The WHO was criticized for a slow reaction to the Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 10,000 people.
"The reason it's a global concern," Costello said of Zika, "is that we are worried that this could also spread back to other areas of the world where the population may not be immune."
Costello said Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus "are present ... through Africa, parts of southern Europe and many parts of Asia, particularly South Asia." Africa and Asia have the world's highest birth rates.
'GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT'
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said on Monday it was "strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven" that Zika causes microcephaly.
Costello, a pediatrician, said WHO was drafting guidelines for pregnant women and mustering experts to work on a definition of microcephaly that would include a standardized measurement of baby heads.
"We believe the association is 'guilty until proven innocent,'" he said, referring to whether Zika causes microcephaly.
The WHO office for Southeast Asia, issued a statement urging countries in the region to "strengthen surveillance and take preventive measures against the Zika virus disease which is strongly suspected to have a causal relation with clusters of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities."
Small biotech companies and academic institutions have plans to develop a Zika vaccine, and GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK.L) has said it is concluding feasibility studies to see if its vaccine technology was suitable. And on Tuesday other companies joined the effort.
U.S. drug developer NewLink Genetics Corp (NLNK.O), which is also developing an Ebola vaccine with Merck (MRK.N), said it has started a project to develop Zika treatment options.
The University of South Australia said it was working on a Zika vaccine with Australian biotech Sementis Ltd.
Experts have said a Zika vaccine for widespread use is months if not years away.
An Australian state health service said two Australians were diagnosed with the virus after returning from the Caribbean, confirming the first cases of the virus in the country this year.
Officials said mosquitoes carrying the virus had been detected at Sydney International Airport, but they said it was unlikely the virus would establish local transmission given the lack of large numbers of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
Brazil, which has 3,700 suspected cases of microcephaly that may be linked to Zika, is scheduled to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Thailand played down the threat posed by Zika, and its public health ministry said the country should not worry about the virus. Thailand has confirmed one case of it this year.
Neighboring Malaysia and Singapore have said they are at high risk for the spread of Zika if the virus turns up in those countries.
(Additional reporting by Dominique Vidalon in Paris, Ben Hirschler in London, Jane Wardell in Sydney, Amy Sawitta Lefevre in bangkok, Pedro Fonseca in Rio, Ankur Banerjee and Amrutha Penumudi in Bengaluru; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Toni Reinhold)
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