WANTED: Volunteers willing to be infected with Zika Virus
Zika is an unorthodox virus, transmittable through mosquito bites, sexual intercourse and blood. Therefore, it only seems natural that researchers are taking unorthodox methods to combat the virus, and they are now looking for people who are willing to be infected to help in their efforts to combat it.
Yes, that’s right, the very virus that was once viewed as a mere nuisance — until it was found to be linked to a birth defect that affects a fetus’ brain — just under a year ago could soon be injected in willing participants in order to accelerate the development of a much-needed vaccine.
Researchers in the U.S. are already in the midst of safety-testing two vaccine candidates, and more experimental shots are poised to enter that preliminary testing soon. Any that appear promising will be tested in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean that are hard-hit by the mosquito-borne virus.
However this approach, while reliable, also has two significant weaknesses: First, testing experimental vaccines in this manner is the only way to see if it really works. If it doesn’t, then not only did researchers waste time, but money as well. Second, in the chance that it does work, researchers would still have a long road ahead of them to make the vaccine readily available for the public.
This is where this avenue of research comes in. Called a human challenge study — when healthy and non-pregnant people agree to be deliberately injected with a virus, mimicking natural infection while scientists track how their bodies react.
Human challenge studies are rare because they’re difficult to perform and expensive, and while there are some ethical issues involved, they offer a unique set of advantages that will prove invaluable in the fight against Zika.
The first advantage is speed: infecting someone with ZIka in a controlled setting is faster than waiting for a mosquito to bite them in order to see if an experimental vaccine provides adequate protection.
The second advantage is seeing how Zika develops: Since participants will be tracked from the moment they’re infected, researchers will be able to learn new aspects about the virus, such as how long it’s infectious in blood, semen and other bodily fluids, as well as how the immune system fights it off.
“We’re looking at these human challenge protocols not only as an important step in vaccine development but as a means to learn more about Zika,” said study leader Dr. Anna Durbin of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We can look at things that you just can’t do in someone who’s naturally infected.”
To make use of these advantages, the study, planned to start in December when mosquitoes are inactive, will have volunteers be injected with different amounts of Zika and kept in a hospital unit for 12 days to be sure the virus has been cleared from the bloodstream. At that point, participants would have to agree to undergo the same precautions that most would take to avoid infection in the first place, such as using condoms during intercourse.
The second round of the research will begin six months after the first, with researchers trying to infect those who received an experimental vaccine once again with Zika. The purpose of this will be to see just how effective the vaccine is — if they don’t get infected again, their efforts will be a success.
Of course, before any of this happens, the government needs to approve of it — the study does ask for people to willingly get infected with the virus, after all. However, if it is approved, researchers will potentially be one step closer to finally having an answer to Zika.