Vaccine center researches Zika virus


The infectious diseases lab in the Given Complex is pictured Feb. 12. UVM is testing the safety of a potential Zika virus vaccine. COLE WANGSNESS/The Vermont Cynic

The UVM Vaccine Testing Center will play a role in the development of a vaccine for the Zika virus, which was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.

UVM will test vaccines developed at the National Institute of Health to make sure they are safe for humans and effectively generate the immune system response to protect the body, said associate professor of medicine Kristen Pierce.

Zika is a virus that is transmitted by mosquitoes and is generally found around the equator, assistant professor of medicine Sean Diehl said.

“The virus causes a mild fever, rash, a general lethargy and sometimes a conjunctivitis like pink eye,” Diehl said.

There is currently no vaccine for Zika, or any treatment methods, he said.

“What we’re going to be doing is to try to understand the basis of how the immune system is revved up by this particular vaccine, and how it compares to similar vaccines like the ones for Dengue or Yellow Fever that are in the same family as the Zika virus,” Diehl said.

Much more is known about those viruses than Zika, he said, so the researchers are trying to understand and analyze the immune response.

“We are first going to be testing them on monkeys and in mice to make sure we can generate an immune response in those animals first, and make sure it’s safe,” Diehl said.

Diehl highlighted the importance of these tests for safety.

“That’s always a required step for progression to have a really good sense it will be safe in humans,” he said.

The Zika vaccine is still the early stages of production, Pierce said.

“We haven’t even tested the vaccine in mice and monkeys yet, so we probably won’t start human studies at UVM until the fall,” she said.

More and more research is being done on the virus but an approved vaccine is still a few years away, Diehl said.

The Zika virus is spreading quickly through the Americas, and high rates of birth defects are being seen in countries like Brazil, according to World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan.

The virus is also transmitted sexually, Pierce said.

“I’ve heard a lot recently about Zika, but it doesn’t seem to be as big of a risk as something like the outbreak of Ebola a few years ago,” senior Matt Tolley said.

Tolley said he thinks media outlets play a role in the perception of a disease.

“I think the media always hypes up things like disease outbreaks just for the story,” he said.

Diehl said the virus has been linked to a birth defect.

“A lot of people don’t know they have it because of the mildness of the symptoms, but the one thing that has brought it into the news is that it’s now being linked with a birth defect,” he said.