Pathobiology and Veterinary Science professor Paulo Verardi started designing a vaccine for the Zika virus last fall. As told to Elaina Hancock:
I’m originally from Brazil, and I read the Brazilian news in Portuguese every day during my lunch break. Back in October, I was particularly puzzled by the news that this one particular hospital reported two babies being born with microcephaly on the same day. Microcephaly is rare, so at that point Brazilian health officials quickly considered a link between the Zika infection and the birth defect, and in November they found the virus in the amniotic fluid of two pregnant women whose fetuses had microcephaly. In January, a Brazilian research team showed that the virus seems to cross the placental barrier that normally protects the fetus from infections.
Since past outbreaks were uncommon and the disease typically mild, no vaccine or therapies for the disease have yet been developed. So back in November, as I read the news about the outbreak, I immediately started working on the development of a vaccine. I specifically work on vaccine platforms and, together with my students at UConn, had just finished the development of a new method to quickly develop vaccines. I then asked Brittany Jasperse, a pathobiology Ph.D. student in my laboratory, to use our method to design a number of vaccines for Zika. Brittany is now working diligently to advance this process, and we expect to test the immunogenicity of these new vaccines very shortly. The Brazilian ambassador contacted me and helped expedite the process of getting Zika samples to our team.
How far off is a vaccine? The pathway to a licensed vaccine is a long one. First, vaccines must be developed and tested in preclinical trials with animal models. That is what our group is doing now. If the vaccine is shown to be safe and efficacious, it eventually progresses into human clinical trials. The whole process takes years; just consider the fact that we still don’t have a licensed Ebola virus vaccine, although we are close to it.
This is truly a very special emerging disease. Unlike Ebola virus infection that causes severe symptoms and in most cases death, infection with Zika virus is typically asymptomatic, but sadly extremely consequential for pregnant women and their babies. It’s really an unprecedented, fluid situation, with much more to learn.