Zika Vaccine: Human Clinical Trials Launched In U.S. As Funding Runs Short

Are scientists closing in on a Zika vaccine? Shortly after Zika virus infections caused a historic travel advisory by the CDC earlier this week, officials announced that the first human clinical trials of a Zika vaccine will begin in the United States — even though funding is running short.

As part of the global search for answers and effective measures against the virus, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that it would begin clinical trials of a Zika vaccine under the auspices of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID.)

Zika In America

The news comes after the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) issued a travel warning earlier this week, advising pregnant women and their partners to stay away from a small neighborhood just north of downtown Miami.

As reported by CNN, it is the first time the CDC has issued a warning for Americans traveling within the continental United States. The advisory came after four people contracted the Zika virus within an area of about one square mile in the Miami neighborhood. Door to door surveys by public health officials and subsequent testing identified another 11 cases.

According to the NIH, more than 6,400 cases of Zika infection have been reported so far throughout the U.S. and its territories, with only Idaho, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Alaska still Zika-free. But until now the infections have been traced back to travel within other regions of the world where the virus is known to be rampant. The Miami cases are believed to be the first that involve infection by mosquitoes on U.S. soil.

The Zika Vaccine

The as yet experimental vaccine will be evaluated for its safety and efficiency in establishing an immune response. Testing of the Zika vaccine will involve at least 80 volunteers in good health between the ages of 18 and 35 at three different sites across the U.S., NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. is quoted in a media release.

“Although it will take some time before a vaccine against Zika is commercially available, the launch of this study is an important step forward.”

If the current set of trials have positive results, human trials will be expanded to other countries that have been affected by the Zika virus by early next year. The Zika virus currently affects more than 50 countries worldwide.

The Washington Post reports that Dr. Fauci mentioned in a prior interview that the agency’s previous work with the West Nile and dengue viruses, both also transmitted by mosquitoes, gave them a leg up when it came to designing a Zika vaccine.

The Zika vaccine that will be tested incorporates a portion of DNA that is called a plasmid. The plasmid has been engineered to include genetic material that produce proteins of the Zika virus. After test subjects have been injected with the vaccine, their bodies will begin to produce the Zika virus proteins with the goal of prodding the immune system into creating a protective immune response.

According to a Reuters report, the Zika vaccine trials come as the Obama administration warned Congress that money set aside to fight the infectious disease is running short. Funds set aside for Zika research will run out by the end of this month, meaning the second phase of the vaccine trials may face delays.

Zika Virus Infection

A typical case of Zika virus involves only mild flu-like symptoms, and in fact 80 percent of patients will not notice any symptoms at all. The danger comes for pregnant women who can pass along the virus to their unborn children, often resulting in microcephaly, a tragic birth defect where babies are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. Other brain defects can also result from Zika infection.

Along with the NIH, other agencies and companies around the globe are racing to find a Zika vaccine, including Inovio Pharmaceuticals, based in Pennsylvania, and GeneOne Life Sciences of South Korea. There is currently no known cure or treatment for Zika virus disease, making development of a Zika vaccine a matter of great importance.

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