The world has collectively held its breath as the Zika virus continued its spread to more areas, causing the World Health Organization to declare it a global health emergency in February of this year.
The task of finding a vaccine to effectively fight this spread has so far escaped us but scientists have succeeded in their attempts to clone the Zika virus for the first time, taking a step closer to finding a vaccine.
The mosquito borne virus, which can likewise be transmitted sexually, has torn through Latin America in recent months bringing its signature condition, microcephaly. Microcephaly leads to babies being born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.
A team of scientists from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston were able to genetically engineer Zika meaning that researchers can now make the virus in test tubes and on Petri dishes.
Disclosure came in a study (PDF) published on the 16th of May, where lead author Pei-Yong Shi said that his team’s ability to clone the Zika virus meant that scientists can finally study and adapt the virus to develop a vaccine.
They could also use the cloned Zika virus to test the efficacy of their own vaccines. Shi also said that if scientists are able to adapt the virus to make a safe vaccine, trials on animals could start soon and clinical trials could start as early as next year.
He however posits against the possibility of the Zika clones causing serious side effects stating;
“But of course this will depend on whether we see serious side effects. We don’t even know yet what the full impact of Zika is, besides microcephaly and some other neurological diseases,”.
That particular fear is one shared by some other scientists who believe that the impact of the virus is greater than initially thought. They have linked it to premature births, eye problems and several neurological conditions in babies born to infected women.