As the Zika virus is spreading across the globe, pressure is mounting for medical scientists and researchers to create a vaccine. The problem is that creating a vaccine takes time and money. Alan Barrett, director of the Sealy Center for Vaccine Development in Texas, says, “it takes about 20 years and costs about $1.5 billion.” There is some good news according to Barrett, who commented that since Zika is similar to other mosquito-borne illnesses, researchers have a bit of a headstart on the vaccine process.
— Live Science (@LiveScience) February 10, 2016
In order to create a vaccine against the virus, researchers first must figure out how the virus triggers the human immune system to respond. The immune system response is vital to a successful vaccine. When vaccines are given, an inert form of the virus is injected into the person. The immune system recognizes the virus and begins to produce antibodies to combat it. Once the antibodies are created, the person is immune. If the body sees the virus again, the already created antibodies go to work at eradicating the threat. Once scientists have isolated the part of Zika that triggers an immune response, human testing can begin.
The human testing phase of the vaccine-creating process can be the longest step in the entire ordeal. Between 10 and 20 volunteers will be the first people to receive the vaccine. If all goes well with the small sample group, the number of volunteers to receive the new vaccine will increase into the hundreds and then tens of thousands. Because vaccines are expected to last for years, each group of people who received the vaccine will be studied for up to a year in order to determine if immunity is long lasting. Barrett comments on this phase of human testing.
“We want it to give you that protection and safety for at least one year, maybe lifelong, so that’s why it takes so long to go through the studies, because it’s such a high bar you’re trying to meet in terms of safety and efficacy.”
As mentioned earlier, Zika is related to other viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes. Yellow fever and dengue fever are two examples that are related to Zika. Vaccines exist for both of those illnesses. Barrett says that it is their hope “that we can reduce the time to develop a vaccine by taking the work done on these other vaccines and applying them to Zika.”
Doctor Anthony Fauci works for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The NIAID is working on vaccines that appear promising, but not ready for human testing. Fauci states that a vaccine will not be available for years.
“While these approaches are promising, it is important to understand we will not have a widely available safe and effective Zika vaccine this year and probably not in the next few years.”
The Zika virus is not a brand new virus. Health officials have known about it since it was first discovered in Africa in 1947. Researchers were studying yellow fever in Africa when they were able to isolate a different form of the virus from a monkey in the Zika forest in 1952. Zika was not isolated from a human until 1954 in Nigeria.
From 1954 to 2007, the virus was essentially dormant. A widespread epidemic in 2007 on Yap Island thrust the Zika back into the medical community. From 2007 to 2013, Zika spread across the small island nations across the Pacific Ocean. The current outbreak originated in Brazil in April 2015. New cases are being found in South America, Central America, the United States, and China.
Do you think the Zika virus will be contained before a vaccine is created?
[Image Via AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco]