UConn professors work to develop Zika virus vaccine

In this Jan. 27, 2016, file photo, an Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. A new study suggests the worrisome Zika virus apparently has been in Brazil at least a year longer than experts previously thought. Some experts have speculated the virus first came to the Americas sometime in 2014. But the new study, led by Brazilian researchers, concludes Zika landed in Brazil a year earlier. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern. However, there is still no vaccine for the virus.

Professors in the Pathobiology and Veterinary Science department at the University of Connecticut are trying to change that.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “Zika virus disease (Zika) is a disease caused by Zika virus that is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes).”

In 1952, the first human cases of Zika were detected and since then, outbreaks of Zika have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, according to the CDC.

Paulo Verardi, assistant professor in the Pathobiology and Veterinary Science department, has been studying the virus since November and has been trying to create a vaccine.

“Vaccines work by eliciting specific immune responses that protect from a future exposure,” Verardi said. “In the case of our vaccines, we are expressing certain proteins derived from Zika virus using a number of different approaches.  Once the proteins are expressed or inoculated into a person or animal, an immune response is generated.”

Verardi said that there are many academic laboratories, vaccine companies and other organizations working on Zika virus vaccines now, but his lab will soon start hearing about their preliminary studies in animal models.

“A new vaccine must be designed, constructed, and characterized extensively before it can be tested in animal models.  We are in the middle of this process now.  Ultimately, the safety and efficacy of the vaccines must be tested in human clinical trials before approval,” Verardi said. “Hopefully those responses will be protective in animal models, and later in humans.”

Even in the best-case scenario, Verardi said a licensed vaccine for use in humans is still a few years away.  

Verardi said his project was initially funded by internal funds in his laboratory and later by the Office of the Vice President for Research at UConn.

Verardi said his lab has also applied to the National Institutes of Health to get additional funds to continue the development of the vaccine.

“The dream of every vaccine developer is to have a licensed vaccine that has a significant impact in human or animal health. But regardless, if my team at UConn can make any contribution to this process, that will be a worthwhile effort,” Verardi said.


Emma Krueger is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.krueger@uconn.edu.