Zika cases number in the hundreds here in the United States, while more than a million have contracted the virus in Brazil, and with tens of thousands of U.S. citizens expected to travel to the Olympics there in a few months, scientists here are racing against time in the event of an outbreak.
Dr. J. Thomas August has spent the last 40 years at Johns Hopkins and decades developing a way for people to fight off viruses.
He was already working on a vaccine to combat another mosquito-borne illness last year in Brazil, dengue fever, when he shifted his research to Zika.
"I have the vaccine and we're now... just today what the FDA will require of us to give us permission to start the human clinical trials," said August.
As opposed to those pursuing vaccines, which would contain a live virus, August is relying upon one of his own discoveries---a means of delivering cells injected with the DNA code of the virus to a person's own immune system to fight off infection.
"Others talk about 10 years to invent and develop a new vaccine,” said August, “We're going to do this in about a year."
That's just the first phase of the trials, which may be tested on as few as 20 to 30 subjects.
Ultimately, it would be up to a pharmaceutical company to conduct trials on thousands of infected and healthy people in South America before it could be manufactured for widespread distribution.
August is bankrolling his new Baltimore-based company called Pharos Biologicals with his own money and has enlisted CEO David Wise to help raise as much as $5 million to conduct the initial trials.
"There haven't been, other than sexual transmission, there haven't been any locally acquired cases through mosquitoes in the United States, but that may change," said Wise, "You don't want it to become hysteria or an overreaction, and my concern is that if there are locally-acquired cases in the United States, particularly in an election year, that this might take on an element that's not healthy in a good, sound, rational debate on how to address the crisis."
Johns Hopkins holds the patent on August's breakthrough science and have granted him a license to pursue his vaccine.
In October, a company in Rockville, Immunomix, which further developed the Hopkins science, licensed the same technology to a Japan-based company for a different purpose---to treat and prevent allergies for a record $300 million.
But J. Thomas August says he's not in it for fame or fortune.
This scientist has spent much of his life on a humanitarian mission.
"That's exactly why I'm still working as hard as I can, because the world needs... right now especially... the world needs a protection against Zika,” said August, “and it's only going to get worse if we don't find something that protects against it."
August's vaccine would be delivered with a simple shot, and as for its potential, he points to the discovery of a vaccine for polio back in the fifties.
That, in his words, “emptied out 12-story buildings full of polio patients within a year”.