A New Zika Vaccine Is Being Tested: Here's What We Know So Far

mosquitoNow that the Zika virus has spread to Miami, the threat of getting the disease is scarier than ever -- particularly for expectant moms, because while the illness causes only mild symptoms in most individuals, it can cause brain damage and neurological disorders in infants if contracted during pregnancy. But there is some hope on the horizon: The National Institutes of Health just started the first human trials for an experimental vaccine for Zika

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The vaccine, called a DNA vaccine, was proven to be effective in mice earlier this year. A DNA vaccine is different from the usual variety, which uses weak or dead germs. These vaccines are made from genetically engineered material that contain instructions for the body to make Zika virus proteins -- which causes the body to begin an immune response against the disease. According to John Mascola, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Vaccine Research Center, "DNA or gene-based vaccines induce antibodies, but they also can activate the cell-mediated immune response, which ultimately could yield strong and durable protection against disease."

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At the moment, there are no DNA vaccines approved for use on humans in the US, but apparently the Zika vaccine is similar to one developed for West Nile virus, which is considered to be safe. (Interestingly, though, all the women taking part in the trials are required to use an "effective means of birth control for at least 21 days prior to enrollment through 12 weeks after the last study vaccination.")

But one advantage to DNA vaccines is that they can be manufactured quickly, which is important considering the urgency of the Zika situation. In addition to the 15 people infected in Miami, more than 1,600 people in the continental US have been infected through travel (since Zika can also be transmitted through sexual contact). 

Unfortunately, we're still a long way off from a time when the vaccine will be available (to women of childbearing age and their sexual partners) on a widespread basis. Just 80 people will be participating in the trials, which are set to take place in Maryland and Georgia over the next two years. If the vaccine is shown to be safe, the NIAID plans to start a Phase 2 trial in Zika-endemic countries in early 2017 -- though researchers have expressed concern that funding will run out before then. (While President Obama asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency money for Zika in February, the details have yet to be agreed on.)

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In the meantime, another experimental trial from Inovio Pharmaceuticals was approved earlier this year, but results are pending. So for now, prevention will continue to be key: following travel advisories, wearing insect repellent, taking measures to control mosquitoes around the home (such as using window screens and netting), and avoiding unprotected sex with possibly infected partners. Here's hoping that at least one of these trials is successful.


Image via Tom/Flickr 

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