UT medical branch partners with Brazilian health ministry to create Zika vaccine

Zach Lyons

Hoping to end the onslaught of Zika virus cases throughout Central America, Brazil’s Ministry of Health has formed an agreement with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB) to create a vaccine for the virus.

Zika, which the World Health Organization warns may affect 3 to 4 million people over the next year, is suspected to be linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that manifests in abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. As many as 1.5 million Brazilians are estimated to have been infected with the virus.

Brazil’s Evandro Chagas Institute, which houses reference materials for many arthropod-borne viruses, has had a long relationship with UTMB, virologist Robert Tesh said. The institute reached out to Tesh, who works in the department of pathology at UTMB, for help. From there, Tesh arranged the involvement of Mariano Garcia-Blano and Pei-Yong Shi from UTMB’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology. The three visited Brazil earlier this month to join a delegation of Brazilian scientists, and health officials looking for ways to combat the virus.

“We haven’t yet seen the final budget, but they’re talking about something in the range of 1.9 million dollars to start with,“ Tesh said. “We’re going to have several Brazilians come work in our lab in addition to them providing money for supplies and salaries.“

UTMB is well equipped to combat the virus because of the expertise of its faculty, Shi said.

“UTMB is really a center of excellence in terms of arboviruses research,” Shi said. ”We have a great team here, covering almost all the aspects of the virus research.”

The urgency of combating Zika is high, though the impact of the virus has taken a different tone than that of the Ebola outbreak of 2014. The Zika outbreak appears to command a different perception — it’s less dangerous, since it is not typically fatal, but is far more prolific, Sahotra Sarkar, integrative biology and philosophy professor, said.

“Nobody thinks that Zika is quite as serious as Ebola in terms of what it would do to individuals,” Sarkar said. “But the spread is much, much more active.”

While urgent, it’s important that the vaccine is viable for the people of Brazil and beyond, Shi said.

“[The vaccine development] will be highly collaborative, with different labs on campus as well as globally,” Shi said. “I think the key is really to have a safe vaccine that can be effectively mobilized to immunize the population and is a very strong vaccincation.”