Tom Hobman and his research team at the University of Alberta are trying to keep pace with the Zika virus as it spreads rapidly.

Experts estimate up to four million people in the Americas could be infected by this mosquito-borne virus this year.

Half of those cases could be in Brazil alone. "It's been estimated in Brazil that there may be as many as two million infections so far," Hobman, a professor of cell biology in the Faculty of Medicine, told Edmonton AM radio show host Trisha Estabrooks on Friday.

In May an outbreak of the virus in Brazil coincided with a 2,700-per-cent increase in reported cases of microcephaly, an often fatal congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development in newborns, says author Michael Brown in an article on the U of A's website.

Zika produces flu-like symptoms

The Zika virus produces flu-like symptoms, such as fever, rashes and joint pain, and can last up to a week, Hobman said.

Pregnant women or women contemplating pregnancy are urged not to travel to Zika-affected countries, Dr. Martin Lavoie, acting chief medical officer of health for the province, said on Thursday.

Zika is residing in every country in the Americas, except Chile and Canada, said Hobman, adding there could be more cases here but they remain underreported.

Health officials reported Thursday that at least two Albertans have contracted the Zika virus over the last three years. In one case a woman returned from Colombia in December with the virus. The other case was in 2013 when a person returned from travelling in southeast Asia.

Hobman, whose team just started researching the virus a few months ago, hadn't even hear the word "Zika" until recently. His team is one of the few in the world studying the virus, but Hobman said new labs will be popping up in Brazil and in the southern United States, where many Canadians vacation.   

Virus has become explosive 

But Hobman knows there's a sense of urgency, especially after the World Health Organization called for an emergency meeting of independent experts on Monday to decide if the virus outbreak should be declared an international health emergency. The WHO has called the virus "explosive."

Hobman and his research team are focusing on developing a "rapid diagnostic test, a quick and cheap method to detect the virus."

Currently, the test takes too long and involves sophisticated equipment. The quick test is vital, given that millions of people now need to be tested.

Secondly, the team aims to create "drugs or methods to block mother-to-fetus transfer of the virus because I don't think there's going to be a vaccine on the scene for at least five years."

Asked why the virus is spreading so quickly, Hobman could only speculate, saying the virus may replicate faster than others.

Still, Hobman hopes his team will catch up with Zika sooner than later.