Zika Vaccine Is Close, But Brazilians Blame Vaccines — Not Mosquitoes — For Outbreak

As the world ramps up efforts to create a vaccine to protect expectant mothers against the Zika virus, a company in the U.S. has announced what could be a breakthrough.

One of 15 companies and academic groups scrambling to develop a vaccine, a U.S.-based biotech firm called Inovio Pharmaceuticals has developed an experimental shot that they’ve injected into mice, Reuters reported.

The company has announced that the vaccine resulted in a “robust and durable” response — the mice reportedly started to develop antibodies against Zika. Inovio’s chief executive, Joseph Kim, said researchers will test the vaccine in non-human primates next and start product manufacturing. By the end of the year, human testing of the Zika vaccine could begin, the Telegraph added.

This has raised hopes that a vaccine will arrive sooner than anyone expected. And that’s good news, since a public health expert, Lawrence Gostin, declared that the World Health Organization “grossly underestimated” how widespread and rapidly Zika is spreading across the Americas. He expects it to spread to other regions, as well.

On Wednesday, WHO announced that $56 million in funds — from states and other donors — will be dedicated to the fight against Zika. The money will be used to develop a vaccine quickly, conduct diagnostics, research just how the virus works, and to control its spread. This money comes after WHO officially declared the Zika outbreak a global public health emergency. This week, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said Zika is now a threat of “very serious proportions.”

The virus has been linked to microcephaly in babies — which causes babies brains to stop growing and leads to developmental problems — and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis.

Meanwhile, cases in Brazil continue to rise. The country’s health ministry has reported 4,443 suspected and confirmed cases, up over a hundred since the last week. Another 3,900 suspected cases of microcephaly are being investigated, but so far, it’s not clear if the cases are linked to Zika.

Researchers have also tested the amniotic fluid of two fetuses with microcephaly and detected Zika, which means the virus could cross the placental barrier — another piece of evidence that the deformity and the mosquito-borne illness are related. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also begun field research in Brazil and will gather data from new mothers for over a month.

But as world health officials, scientists, and doctors work to combat this mysterious illness and create a vaccine quickly to protect the world’s expectant mothers, many people in Brazil have a different theory about what is causing their children to be born with the unusual deformity.

Many people believe that a vaccine has caused the outbreak and the government — which is widely distrusted by Brazilians — is lying, PBS reported.

“I think it’s lies,” said mother Luciana Silva dos Santos. “It’s not the mosquitos. The mosquitos have always been here and we’ve never had this problem.”

People here have reason to be skeptical of the explanation that a mosquito-borne illness is making their unborn children sick. They say many pregnant women get Zika and their babies are fine; mothers don’t have symptoms, but they’re babies are born sick anyway; and microcephaly has been around long before Zika.

Officials concede there’s truth to these reasons: Zia arrived in late 2014; 80 percent of those infected have no symptoms; other viruses and exposure to drugs and alcohol can cause the condition; and scientists still don’t know if all infected women pass the virus onto their unborn babies.

The rumor in Brazil is currently that an expired batch of measles, mumps, or rubella vaccine is the culprit. In recent days, a group of doctors has even declared a common pesticide is to blame, with little evidence to back up the claim.

Luciana, at least, can’t be convinced it’s mosquitoes.

“They’re pushing this story about the mosquitos because they’re worried about indemnity — they don’t want to have to pay everyone for the damage their vaccines are causing, it would be too expensive to tell the truth. So they say it’s mosquitos causing microcephaly.”

[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]