Experimental Zika Vaccine To Begin Human Trials

Brazil has seen many thousands of cases of Zika-related microcephaly in newborns in the last few months alone. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Most vaccines are produced through a process known as “live attenuation”, wherein cultures of the pathogen are grown before being subsequently weakened to the point wherein it is safe to give to a person in order to provoke a powerful immune response.

A DNA vaccine, a relatively recent invention, involves directly administering genetically engineered DNA – based on the virus’ RNA – straight into the person, whose immune system will immediately recognize as containing hostile molecules of infection (“antigens”) and produce antibodies to it in response.

The advantages of DNA vaccines are that they are more stable than their attenuation counterparts, and the immune response triggered involves multiple types of white blood cells. Although initially effective, researchers have yet to demonstrate that they provide the same long-term immunity that attenuation vaccines feature.

Unfortunately, this new vaccine, if successful in phase one trials, will still not be on the market in the near future. Making sure a vaccine is completely safe to administer takes considerable lengths of time, and as the prime candidates are pregnant women, future trials will have to be particularly robust.

Rio, Brazil, is the epicenter of the viral outbreak, and the Olympics are due to take place there this summer. It's a bad combination. f11photo/Shutterstock

The Zika virus has been out of the news for a month or so, but global health officials remain deeply concerned about it. It currently has no cure, it has been conclusively shown to cause microcephaly in newborns, and it has a propensity towards destroying neurons. Its central pooling of cases remains highest, by far, in the state that is hosting the Summer Olympics this year, and many are calling for them to be moved or canceled in order to prevent a “full-blown global health disaster.”

This vaccine may prove to be a welcome step, but there’s a long way to go before the tide will turn against the Zika pandemic.

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