With Zika virus on the rise, Franken hopes to encourage companies to find cure


There is no cure or vaccine for the Zika virus at this point.

Sen. Al Franken is hoping to encourage drug companies to find one.

Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, sent a letter to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking them to take actions (explained in more detail below) he argues would motivate companies to find a treatment.

Also signing the letter: Sen. Bill Nelson (a Democrat from Florida) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (a Republican from Ohio). You can read the letter from Franken and his colleagues here.

"Given the breadth of the Zika virus outbreak ... the time to act is now," the letter says.

Those three, along with Johnny Isakson (Republican from Georgia), also put together a bill to address the issue. It was introduced Monday, according to GovTrack. The full text isn't yet uploaded to Library of Congress' website.

What the letter and bill suggest

What the bill would do is encourage drug companies to develop treatments or cures for the Zika virus by making the disease eligible for what's called the Priority Review Voucher program, according to a news release from Franken's office.

What is that program?

New drugs must be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration. Normally a standard review takes about 10 months, oftentimes longer, the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society says.

The Priority Review Voucher program basically acts as a fast pass review for drugs that will treat certain serious conditions. If your drug qualifies, the FDA's review process instead takes just six months.

It's quicker for the company, and it's quicker for the patient who may need it, the society says.

Franken and his co-sponsors want the Zika virus added to the list of diseases that are eligible for the Priority Review Voucher program.

Congress added the Ebola virus to the list in 2014, and it joined other ailments such as tuberculosis, malaria and dengue fever, the senators' letter says. Last year, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services added Chagas and neurocysticercosis.

“The Zika virus has spread rapidly, and I believe we need to make an effort to develop new strategies for preventing and treating it,” said Franken in the news release. “Our bipartisan bill will help speed up the development and approval of a vaccine or medical treatment. This is a commonsense measure that will encourage innovators to develop an effective treatment for Zika.”

More on the Zika virus

The Zika virus itself generally causes just mild symptoms, the CDC says.

But there may be a link between pregnant women who are infected with the Zika virus and microcephaly – a birth defect where a baby has an abnormally small head and brain, the CDC notes. Microcephaly is typically a rare condition, but there’s been a surge in cases in Brazil since the Zika virus was first reported there last year, The Atlantic reports.

That – as well as the sudden spike in cases in South and Central America – has health officials concerned.

Earlier this month the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency, The Guardian reported.

The Star Tribune wrote about how officials in Minnesota are watching – they say the risks of it spreading in the state are low, but they're watching closely.

The CDC issued a travel alert for anyone planning trips to areas where the virus has been reported, including: Africa, South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The alert is mainly for pregnant women and those who are trying to become pregnant, and urges them to take extra precautions to avoid mosquito bites or postpone travel if they have plans to visit those areas, the CDC says.

Recent cases in the US

A Minnesota woman was infected with the virus, after spending time in Honduras, state officials said last month – the first case in the state.

Meanwhile similar reports have popped up around the country, including two cases in Pennsylvania, one in Delaware, and a case in east Tennessee. In Florida, a state of emergency was expanded to a seventh county, with 16 people in the state having been diagnosed.

There was also a sexually transmitted case in Texas, where the patient contracted the virus after having sex with someone who'd recently returned from Venezuela, CNN reports.

One New York University official even told MPR the 2016 Olympic Games – slated to take place in Brazil – should be canceled because of the risk.

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