Two days ago, the CDC announced that Zika causes microcephaly, which causes abnormal head sizes in newborns. The CDC also announced the virus can cause stillbirth, miscarriage and other birth abnormalities.

CDC director Tom Frieden stated “This study marks a turning point in the Zika outbreak.” “We are also launching further studies to determine whether children who have microcephaly born to mothers infected by the Zika virus is the tip of the iceberg of what we could see in damaging effects on the brain and other developmental problems.”

Addressing the Zika outbreaks has been a challenge for health officials, and since the first microcephaly cases were reported in Brazil last year, there has been a nationwide effort to find practical solutions to the growing threat of the virus.

Preventative measures have been focused on preventing the spread of the carrying insect population. This has included using repellant, screened windows and air conditioning. The long term hope, however, would be a vaccine. Hope has been in having a vaccine “within months” as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease claims to be possible. Vaccines usually take years to develop according the Jay Nelson, PhD, senior molecular virologist and founder and director of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy institute at Oregon Health and Science University.

According the Dr. Jay Nelson, Zika has a 40% homology to dengue virus at the amino acid level and a dengue vaccine has taken two decades to develop. There still is not a highly effective, safe dengue vaccine. This effort has included Dr. Alan Rothman’s research at iCubed.  Given the worldwide interest and demand for a vaccine to curb the dangers the Zika virus presents, the hope is development will take less than 20 years.

Dr. Jay Nelson stated the first hurdle in testing possible vaccine candidates is determining an appropriate animal model for the Zika virus. Mice are the cheapest option, but the Zika virus will not replicate in them. Rhesus macaques, which were the first primate the virus was identified in, are currently being used by Dr. Nelson’s lab. The monkeys have been infected and the virus has been identified in their blood, but they are not causing disease in the animals. This presents hurdles in modeling the progression of the dieses state in humans. The lab is still moving forward however, identifying what happens when vaccinated pregnant monkeys are infected with the virus.

Live attenuated vaccines tend to be the strongest candidates for vaccine selection. These vaccines also allow for the virus to grow, but not cause the disease state, and therefore allow for long lasting immunity. These types of vaccines come with risk especially in immunosuppressed populations, those taking immunosuppressant’s and adults over the age of 55. The other major hurdle in creating a safe vaccine is Zika’s link to Guillain-Barré syndrome. It is import the vaccine does not cause an increased risk for such a disease once vaccinated. Vaccine development has been a strong focus of Dr. De Groot’s reasearch at iCubed and her private company EpiVax.

 

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