A team of Canadian researchers is signing up volunteers to be part of the first human clinical trial of a vaccine to combat the Zika virus.
The Université Laval’s Infectious Disease Research Centre and Centre de recherche du CHU de Québec-Université Laval will be one of a trio of research centres to conduct the trial.
There is currently no treatment or vaccine for Zika, the virus that most recently emerged in South America. While most cases of Zika are relatively mild, the virus can cause microcephaly in infants born to infected mothers.
Yahoo Canada News spoke to Dr. Sylvie Trottier, director of the Laval faculty of medicine’s department of microbiology, infectious diseases and immunology, about the study.
Q: What does the trial involve?
The trial involves the first injection of the developing Zika vaccine. This vaccine has been through all the pre-clinical studies and now it is ready to be given to human beings for the first time.
This study is being conducted in Quebec City along with in two American centres.
Q: How long will it take?
The whole study will take about one year. We will give the vaccine to the volunteers and after we will observe the response in the immune system. This means there will be three shots of the vaccine. After that, it will be blood tests for quantification of the human response.
Q: So these are healthy people and you’re studying whether it has any adverse effects?
We want to see if there are any adverse effects and we want to see if there is immune response.
Q: How was the vaccine developed?
Researchers in Pennsylvania and Canada decided nine months ago that a Zika vaccine should be developed because of the pending outbreak of Zika in Brazil.
[Laval’s involvement is linked to the arrival of Dr. Gary Kobinger, a doctor of microbiology, professor in Université Laval’s Faculty of Medicine, researcher with Centre de recherche du CHU, director of Laval’s Infectious Disease Research Centre, and a global authority on vaccine research]
Q: That’s relatively quick?
Yes. This is a high-tech vaccine, a DNA vaccine.
[A DNA vaccine is a standard development technique in which genetic material is injected into a living host in order to prompt cells to produce an immunological response.]
This kind of vaccine is already in development for other viruses or microbes.
Q: So the team nine months ago foresaw the outbreak of the Zika virus?
In fact, the thing is that there were already two outbreaks in relatively small communities. In 2007, on Yap Island, Micronesia, 70 per cent of the people were infected.
The concern at that point was Guillain-Barre [an illness of the nervous system that can cause paralysis, and has been associated with Zika]. In the 2013 outbreak, the number of cases of Guillain-Barre was 20 times more than normal.
I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the onset of neurological defects in children. It could be more severe than we ever would have expected.
Q: Has this emerging problem of microcephaly made this vaccine more urgent?
Yes. These infants that are born with microcephaly have a lifelong disability and they will need a lot of care.
This is a human tragedy.
Q: This is an early stage of a human clinical trial. If everything goes as you hope, how long before a vaccine is available?
This is why we are working so hard now. But it is still hard to tell.
With the preliminary data, if we have good human immune response, this study can move quickly into Phase II, perhaps as early as the beginning of 2017.
Q: How many volunteers do you need?
We need 40 volunteers for the whole study. We want to proceed quickly to try and vaccinate them before the end of July or at the very beginning of August.
Q: What do you want Canadians to know about this study and Zika virus?
Even if, in Canada, we don’t have the mosquito that spreads this virus, this virus is transmitted sexually. In Canada now we have 161 cases and 160 of these cases involve travelers to affected countries. As there are more people, there will be more sexual transmission.
So it is not only a problem of South America or Central America. It is going to be a problem for us here, even if we don’t have transmission by the mosquito.
This interview has been edited and condensed.