UVM Vaccine Center Plans To Test Zika Vaccine Under Development

Feb 11, 2016

The University of Vermont Vaccine Testing Center has been selected to help test a potential vaccine that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is developing against the Zika virus.

The World Health Organization has declared Zika a global health emergency after recent cases seem to link the virus to birth defects in babies born from infected mothers. 

Brazil and other parts of Latin American and the Caribbean have seen a recent spate of babies born with microcephaly, the development of unusually small heads and brain damage. Scientists are still trying to figure out if the virus is the cause.

The NIH is working to develop a vaccine against the Zika virus, which is closely related to Dengue fever, yellow fever and the West Nile virus.

Testing a potential Zika vaccine in Vermont

The University of Vermont Vaccine Testing Center anticipates the vaccine currently under development will be ready for testing in humans this fall, says Kristen Pierce, an infectious disease specialist at the center.

The UVM testing will be done in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health and partners at Johns Hopkins University.

Since 2009, the UVM Vaccine Testing Center has been testing a not-yet-approved vaccine for Dengue fever.

“Because the viruses are related, the Zika work became a natural extension of that, says Pierce. “We recruit healthy volunteers from around the Burlington area to receive the vaccine, and then we look at certain markers in the blood for efficacy, how effective is the vaccine at generating an immune response.”

The Dengue vaccine has been studied for years and is very safe, says Pierce. And it appears to be very effective at preventing the fever.

Pierce says the center advertises for volunteers in local papers, and has had no trouble finding people willing to test vaccines, which contain a weakened form of the virus and do not make people sick the way a natural infection would. 

“The Burlington community and surrounding environment has an amazing global commitment,” she says. “It's really thanks to the volunteers that we are able to do this work. “

The surge of Zika

Until recently, the Zika virus wasn’t considered a major concern because its symptoms are relatively mild. Only about 20 percent of those infected with the virus develop symptoms, which can include fever, rash and joint pain. 

But in recent months the virus has captured global attention after authorities in Brazil noted a surge in cases of microcephaly among mothers who were infected with Zika.

Currently, there is no widely available test for Zika infection. According to the New York Times, “Because it is closely related to dengue and yellow fever, [Zika] may cross-react with antibody tests for those viruses. To detect Zika, a blood or tissue sample from the first week in the infection must be sent to an advanced laboratory so the virus can be detected through sophisticated molecular testing.”

The vaccine testing timeline

Pierce says the NIH has not developed the vaccine yet, but is projecting it will have a vaccine ready to test by late summer or fall. That's when the UVM Vaccine Testing Center anticipates beginning their research.

If the vaccine proves to be safe and effective, then “it goes through the F.D.A. process like any other vaccine,” she says.

Pierce says in addition to looking at the vaccine response in human volunteers, the UVM Vaccine Testing Center will also conduct “a lot of basic science immunology work … to help better understand how that vaccine works and how the virus works.”