Seattle scientists race to develop a vaccine for Zika virus

Story by Rossella Bernocco | Photos by Edward Clem

An Anopheles Punctipennis mosquito, a close relative of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito that carries and transmits the Zika virus, sits on display. Zika can cause microcephaly in fetuses of infected women, a condition that causes babies to be born with smaller than normal heads and have abnormal brain development.

At first glance, the Infectious Disease Research Institute, a nonprofit global health organization, blends into the bakery and fitness center downstairs. But inside the four-story building on the north edge of downtown Seattle, white-coated scientists weave between bays of whirring machinery and multi-colored vials. While the atmosphere seems hushed and calm, these people are part of a frantic international race to create a vaccine against the Zika virus.

SINCE 2015, when the virus first gained worldwide attention, Zika has swept into 47 countries, and infected around 32,000 in the United States and its territories. Amid growing evidence that the virus can cause severe brain damage in fetuses, researchers are rushing to block its spread. The scientists in Seattle are working to produce a vaccine to fight Zika, but it won’t happen overnight. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.

“Vaccines, in general, tend to take 10 to 25 years to get one that you can buy,” said Neal Van Hoeven, a senior scientist for the institute.

Van Hoeven and his colleagues hope to make a breakthrough with a relatively new type of vaccine relying on RNA to protect against infection. Just months ago, that idea got a boost from the National Institutes of Health, which awarded the Infectious Disease Research Institute a $491,000 grant to pursue the idea.

RNA vaccines deliver the genetic information immune system cells need in order to recognize and fight the virus in the future. They can be more effective than other vaccination methods, said Dan Stinchcomb, senior vice president of developmental viral disease programs at the institute. Scientists can also manufacture RNA vaccines synthetically, without growing any living material.

A researcher works in a lab at the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, Washington.

Due to its novelty, only a few established ways to manufacture and deliver an RNA vaccine exist. Since Zika is an emerging disease, little data exists on how to measure the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Sometimes funding lags behind the emergency. In the end of September, Congress allocated $1.1 billion to fight Zika after seven months of negotiations. Congress put $397 million toward vaccine development and virus testing.

Researchers need to run tests on animals and people of every target age group before the Food and Drug Administration will approve the vaccine for public use.

“Everything works in a laboratory mouse,” Van Hoeven said. “The translation into human beings isn’t so smooth.”

During the Ebola outbreak of 2014, scientists seemed quick to react with a vaccine, starting the final phase of clinical trials just a year later. But researchers had been developing an Ebola vaccine for over 20 years in response to outbreaks since the 1970s, Stinchcomb said.

Compared to Ebola, Stinchcomb and his team are nearly starting from scratch.

Prior to the recent outbreaks, Zika wasn’t seen as a major threat. Zika is usually not life threatening, often only causing a fever or a rash. Researchers weren’t concerned about the virus until they linked it to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes brain damage in fetuses, in 2015.

But the institute isn’t alone in the race for a vaccine. Pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, are currently working on Zika vaccines as well. In August 2016, the company Inovio announced it had begun a clinical study of a DNA Zika vaccine in 160 human subjects.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Stinchcomb said the institute is only in the early research stages. Next year if all goes as planned, they will take the next step in this long race, beginning animal and human clinical trials.