Some eighty American volunteers will be given a pilot Zika vaccine to test its safety and efficacy, as part of the first clinical trial of the sort. Scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) hope to return with results by the end of the year.
The past 12 months have been critical as governmental agencies and scientific bodies around the world struggled to contain the Zika virus outbreak in South America. Some have even gone as far as calling for the postponing of Rio Olympics, claiming the event risks turning the Zika outbreak from a regional crisis into a planetary pandemic — the World Health Organization (WHO) rejected this appeal, however.
On the bright side, the scale of international collaboration among scientists, in particular, has been almost unprecedented, and results were quick to show. We now know how the virus looks like in 3-D, or how it crosses from the mother to the fetus by hiding in immune cells, ultimately causing those dreadful deformities (microcephaly). Some potential cures have also been identified, like the interferon-induced protein 3 (IFITM3).
Zika at a glance
Zika is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys through a monitoring network of sylvatic yellow fever. It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.
- Zika virus disease is caused by a virus transmitted primarily by Aedes mosquitoes.
- People infected with the Zika virus can have symptoms that include mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headache. These symptoms normally last for 2-7 days.
- There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available.
- The best form of prevention is protection against mosquito bites.
- Zika virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus during pregnancy or at delivery. The babies can be born with microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly.
Soon, the NIAID will begin the first Zika vaccine clinical trial on 80 people in the U.S. ages 18 to 35. If these vaccines are proven safe and boost the immune system against the virus, a Phase 2 trial will be programmed in early 2017.
“NIAID has worked rapidly to accelerate the process,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID. “If we get a good immune response from the vaccine and there are no safety red flags … we should know if it’s OK to move on to Phase 2,” Fauci added.
The vaccine is allegedly made of a circular piece of DNA called a plasmid — genes that code Zika virus proteins. This sort of vaccine is known as a DNA vaccine, a variety which has successfully tackled previous outbreaks such as the West Nile virus.
All participants will get at least one dose of the vaccine, while some will receive as many as three spaced over a couple of weeks. It’s worth noting that the DNA vaccine will be given using a needle-free jet injector, a device which fires a high-pressure stream of fluid straight in the muscle.
If trial 1 and the upcoming trial 2 are deemed successful, it will still take a few years before a Zika vaccine will be available to the public. Until that happens, containment is the keyword, and in the United States, at least, that means more cash from Congress. The Washington Times reports that the “National Institutes of Health will by Aug. 31 exhaust its $47 million share of $374 million that had been redirected to the domestic Zika response” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “has spent more than half of the $222 million it received to protect U.S. shores from the virus.” The rest of the CDC’s Zika budget should run out by September 30.