UConn scientists working fast to design Zika virus vaccine

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STORRS – When news of the Zika virus was just starting to reach most Americans, scientists at the University of Connecticut had already finished some versions of a Zika vaccine.

Dr. Paulo Verardi, an associate professor in UConn’s Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science, has been studying the virus and working on designing a number of vaccines since November.

“We already have one of them ready for them to start testing very shortly, and we have a number of other ones that we are in the process of developing right now,” said Dr. Verardi.

Verardi, originally from Brazil, learned about the quickly-spreading virus through the Brazilian news, which he reads in Portuguese every day during his lunch break.

“Obviously it was big news over there. We started working on it right away. But here in the U.S., and frankly Europe, nobody really was talking about it,” he said.

Since the CDC issued travel advisories and WHO called this mosquito-borne virus a “public health emergency of international concern,” everyone is now talking about it. But the public interest hasn’t changed the lab’s process.

“We as scientists care about what we're studying, but to have everyone else care about it is pretty cool,” said doctorate student Brittany Jasperse, tasked with designing the Zika vaccine.

Jasperse is using a vaccine platform the lab had recently developed. It was specifically designed to create vaccines quickly.

“We had just finished the process and then Zika showed up. It just became an obvious choice to continue the process and actually test the platform and develop vaccines,” said Dr. Verardi.

Though their process for a single vaccine design can take only a few weeks, there’s a long way to go before it becomes a licensed vaccine.

Verardi said, “People ask me a lot, ‘How soon are we going to have a vaccine?’ That's a very hard question to answer because it depends a lot on the research process.”

Even after the lab gets it right, the vaccine has to go through pre-clinical trials with small animals then human clinical trials. The process could take years.