UVM Researchers Working Toward Zika Vaccine

The Vaccine Testing Center at the University of Vermont College of Medicine is teaming with the NIH and Johns Hopkins to unravel the mysteries of Zika

A research facility at the University of Vermont College of Medicine will play a key role in the testing of an eventual vaccine for Zika Virus, which is under development now.

"It's important work," said Dr. Beth Kirkpatrick, the director of the Vaccine Testing Center at UVM.

Kirkpatrick said she is optimistic scientists will unravel the mysteries of Zika, the mosquito-borne virus whose spread in Brazil was followed by an unprecedented jump in babies born with unusually small heads, and other serious health complications.

"The neurologic complication in infants is frightening to everybody," Kirkpatrick said.

UVM is collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins University to learn more about Zika's biology, the way it assaults the cells of developing fetuses, and how adults' bodies produce an immune response to it.

Specifically in Burlington, the Vaccine Testing Center expects to eventually work with healthy human volunteers to study the safety and effectiveness of an NIH-developed vaccine for Zika.

Wednesday, the Obama administration announced $589-million in federal money left over from the largely successful fight against Ebola will be put toward combating the threat from Zika. President Obama has requested about $1.9-billion in emergency money to fight Zika, but that request has stalled in the GOP-controlled Congress.

Administration officials said additional money must be approved to manufacture vaccines, purchase diagnostic tests and undertake mosquito control throughout the rainy season in Central America and the Caribbean, among other activities.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said Wednesday that there are 672 confirmed Zika cases in the United States and in U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, a figure that includes 64 pregnant women.

In addition to bites from Aedes mosquitoes, Zika can also be transmitted through sexual contact. It's estimated that 40-million people will travel between the U.S. and countries with Zika outbreaks.

"It's going to be moving into the United States," Kirkpatrick said of Zika. "I think what we want to do is find out enough about it to control it, or prevent it before really large numbers of our own population are infected, along with other populations in the world."

UVM immunologist Sean Diehl explained the Vermonters are on the case because they've been researching dengue fever since 2008, and are now in the final stages of testing a vaccine for that infection. The World Health Organization says approximately 390-million people per year are infected with dengue, which can kill 25,000 of them.

"We are making progress," Diehl told necn, noting that last week, some members of the Vaccine Testing Center research team traveled to Bangladesh for testing of the dengue fever vaccine there.

Since the viruses are genetically similar, Diehl said that may provide a critical leg up for a breakthrough with Zika.

"It's very easy to come to work excited and energized every day and try to make a difference in this fight," Diehl said of the job he and his colleagues do, which he called "gratifying."

However, the team cautions, their work is slow, by design. The safety and efficacy of vaccines is paramount, Kirkpatrick said, so vaccine development and testing can take years. She said since a lot of dengue research could be applied to understanding Zika, that may help shorten the time it takes to deliver a vaccine.

Click here for more information on the Zika virus, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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