“We know very little about the biology of this virus,” Jackson said. Scientists have to answer basic questions such as the rate it spreads, what the clinical complications may be and how to even distinguish it from other viruses.
With past successful vaccine trials, scientists had decades more worth of research. For instance, scientists first figured out polio was a contagious virus in 1908. The first polio vaccine trials began in 1935 and it took until 1955 to find one that was viable. Zika wasn’t identified until 1947 and then scientists only saw infections in monkeys. It wasn’t until a decade later that doctors spotted it in humans, but at the time, there was no urgency to develop a vaccine because infected humans only showed mild symptoms and only 20% of the time.
With the high rate of infection in Brazil, the Butantan Institute in San Paulo, along with two other labs connected to the Brazil health ministry, will collaborate with companies to find a vaccine. Protein Sciences, a Connecticut biopharmaceutical company, said it is working with Brazilian partners to leverage technology it used creating a flu vaccine to work on Zika.
Company President and CEO Manon Cox thinks her company could have something in human trials in six to eight weeks, but the clinical process “can take maybe three to five years.” Iowa-based NewLink Genetics Corporation, which had worked on an Ebola vaccine candidate, is using that experience to work on a Zika vaccine. And other companies may get into the mix.
The U.S. government also said it is working on two approaches, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. One is a DNA-based vaccineinvolving a newer technique that injects a piece of the viral DNA rather than a protein fragment of the virus to stimulate immunity in the person’s cells.
The other is what’s known as a “live attenuated” approach, which uses a version of the living virus that is weakened in the lab so it won’t make you sick. But even if Congress approves the extra funding, Fauci doesn’t believe your doctor will give you a Zika vaccine anytime soon. At a White House briefing on Monday he said a vaccine is “unlikely to be widely available for a few years.”
“We can predict that we would likely be in phase one trial just to determine if it’s safe and if it induces a good response probably by the end of the summer,” he said. “If it looks like it’s safe, we’ll go to the next stage.”
Updated 4:58 PM ET, Fri February 12, 2016