Researchers at the University of Houston have created a vaccine that may mitigate the opioid epidemic in the U.S. The vaccine can counter the adverse effects of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that authorities say is 50-100 times stronger than morphine.

Professor Colin Haile, the lead researcher, said that the vaccine was developed keeping in mind the people who are addicted to the drug and wish to quit. "If the drug does not get into the brain, there are no effects," Haile said.

"There are no euphoric effects, and there are no lethal effects as well," he said, according to ABC News. The vaccine will allow the fentanyl to be eliminated from the body via the kidneys.

The newly developed vaccine still requires approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human trials. Toxicology studies of the vaccine are still pending, Haile explained.

If approved, the vaccine is expected to be available in the next three to four years, the outlet reported. "We are close, but every time I think about it, I get even more motivated," Haile said.

The University of Houston said on its website that the vaccine may act as a "relapse prevention agent" for people trying to quit the dangerous drug. "While research reveals Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is treatable, an estimated 80% of those dependent on the drug suffer a relapse," it added.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says that fentanyl was originally approved for pharmaceutical usage for cancer patients. It was majorly used for pain relief and was later "diverted for abuse."

"Fentanyl is added to heroin to increase its potency, or be disguised as highly potent heroin," the DEA website says. "Many users believe that they are purchasing heroin and actually don't know that they are purchasing fentanyl – which often results in overdose deaths," it adds.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths involving synthetic opioids have been on the rise. "Death rates increased by over 56% from 2019 to 2020 and accounted for over 82% of all opioid-involved deaths in 2020," the agency said.