SEATTLE -- On the heels of the World Health Organization declaring a public health emergency related to the Zika virus, local scientists said they are already working on a cure. And if they're able to treat Zika, it could also mean a cure for viruses ranging from West Nile to Ebola, to the common cold.
Scientists at biotech company Kineta and the University of Washington are developing the compound. Just like antibiotics treat bacterial infections, their antiviral drug would fend off a range of viruses.
"One of the things where viruses have been really clever throughout evolution, is they have learned how to evade the immune system," said Dr. Shawn Iadonato, Kineta's Chief Scientific Officer. "So what our antiviral drugs are really designed to do is to ramp up the immune system and make it better able to fight infection."
That infection could even include the common cold. Their method already shows promise, not just with emerging viruses like Zika, but with respiratory illnesses.
Dr. Michael Gale of the UW Center for Innate Immunity and Immune Disease has been working on the idea for nearly 10 years. He described a day when family members will go to the doctor to either treat or prevent the spread of a cold.
"When they show up at the clinic with symptoms of a cold or to be protected because their family member has the flu, they could come into the clinic and have this medication to protect them and also treat them," he said. "Imagine you could take a pill that induces a broad immune response in your body. That might last two days and then to keep it going, you'd take another dose that would protect you from being infected by your significant other."
While curing the common cold would benefit millions, viruses like Zika fuel the urgency.
"What we've experienced just over the last five years, we had an emergence of pandemic flu in 2009," Gale said. "Then we had an emergence of a different strain of bird flu, avian influenza virus. And then we we started to relax, if that's even possible, we had the Ebola epidemic, which was big and highly significant, and now Zika and the associated mycrocephly birth defect is being documented over and over. What we're learning is, we can't relax. We have to always be ready to deal with these emerging viruses. And then the lessons we learn from them, we apply back to contemporary threats that we deal with daily."
The scientists say they've seen success in early testing and hope to move to human trials in a matter of years.
"So when we have new, emerging diseases like chikungunya, dengue fever, like the Zika virus, we have drugs that are already available, on the shelf, tested against those viruses, and we know they'll have some beneficial effect," said Iadonato.