BOSTON – After a successful trial in rhesus monkeys, a team of researchers, including doctors from Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is ready to start testing a Zika virus vaccine in humans, they announced this week.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who joined the team in Boston, chastised his Republican colleagues for withholding $1.9 billion in funding requested by President Barack Obama even as the virus has turned up in mosquitoes in South Florida.
Authorities believe the virus can cause devastating birth defects when pregnant women are infected, and confirmation of recent infections caused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday to recommend against travel to a Miami neighborhood.
"There are people from Massachusetts and all across America who are canceling their vacations to Florida. Well, Congress should cancel its vacation, go back into session to fund the $1.9 billion," Markey said at a press conference.
The mosquito-borne virus, believed to cause microcephaly and other problems in infants, was identified in humans in Uganda and Tanzania in 1952, according to the World Health Organization, which declared a world health emergency Feb. 1 as the virus exploded in Latin America.
"We do expect to see more Zika cases," President Barack Obama said during a Thursday press conference where he criticized Congress for going on recess before funding Zika efforts. He added, "The situation is getting critical," saying a vaccine is "well within reach," but could be delayed by lack of funding.
In a Feb. 22 letter to Congress, Obama said the $1.9 billion would support efforts to "fortify domestic public health systems," speed research and development of vaccines, provide emergency assistance to states and territories to fight the virus and provide services for pregnant women in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, among other initiatives.
Beth Israel Deaconess --- Harvard Medical School's teaching hospital --- teamed up with Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, to study three vaccine candidates, which were found to provide "complete protection" against Zika in rhesus monkeys.
Saying the findings "raise optimism" for eventually developing a Zika vaccine for people, Dan Barouch, a senior author of the findings published in Science, said clinical trials would begin in the fall with 30 to 50 human participants testing the safety of the regimen. Markey said "efficacy tests" in people would require thousands of human participants and cost "hundreds of millions of dollars."
"By next summer, perhaps, it is there to be given as a vaccine, all over America, all over Latin America and the world, but the funding has to be there. A vision without funding is a hallucination," Markey said.
Barouch, who is director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel, said the plan would be for a vaccine that could be distributed similarly to flu shots, and he said authorities would "first concentrate on the highest-risk groups" in distributing vaccines.
The group tested three different versions of vaccine candidates, including a "purified inactivated virus," which is essentially a dead virus, along with a "plasmid DNA vaccine and an adenovirus vector-based vaccine," produced at Beth Israel Deaconess.
The tests were "strikingly effective, and no adverse effects were observed," according to Beth Israel Deaconess. Barouch said two other vaccines are under development, including one at the National Institutes of Health, and safety tests in humans are just beginning.
"We are very supportive of all those programs," Barouch said.
Markey said the virus would not be contained in Florida, urging Republicans to join the call for funding Zika research and prevention efforts.
"Miami, Florida, is just the beginning of the story. It is going to spread inevitably, inextricably to city-to-city, state-to-state, all across our country, but all across the planet as well. This disease is just one plane ride away from downtown Boston," Markey said.
He added, "I think it's great that (Florida Sen.) Marco Rubio and (Florida) Governor (Rick) Scott are calling for funding. It would be better if we heard (presidential candidate) Donald Trump calling for the funding; if we heard (House Speaker) Paul Ryan and (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell calling for the funding and that we would go back into session for one-half day in August and pass the $1.9 billion."