The University of Liverpool announced in April 2023 that the first participant has received a dose of a new Zika virus vaccine. It is being trialled by the University at the Clinical Research Facility within Royal Liverpool University Hospital. The vaccine is designed to be suitable for use in pregnancy and provide “highly protective and long-lasting immunity”.  

Why Zika? 

The statement from the University acknowledges that Zika is “not as prevalent as during its peak in 2016”. However, it is an “ongoing threat”, particularly in countries near the equator. The population at highest risk is pregnant women, with the potential for the virus to cause “severe foetal birth defects”.  

Just months ago, in December 2022, Gavi reported on the urgent need for maternal Zika vaccines to address the risks associated with infection during pregnancy. There are still no approved vaccines or treatments for the virus.  

The vaccine 

In 2016 a Zika Rapid Response grant was awarded to Dr Tom Blanchard, Consultant at the Hospital and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University, with colleagues at the University of Manchester in collaboration with UKHSA. The project has been moving forward since 2017, although the team experienced “unanticipated challenges” during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The vaccine showed promise in animal studies and has therefore moved into a human Phase I trial. Healthy volunteers will receive two doses of the vaccine in efforts to evaluate safety, tolerability, and immunogenicity. The trial involves groups of 4 volunteers, with numbers expected to increase as safety evidence accumulates. The vaccine will also be assessed in the context of people who have been exposed to other virus in circulation in places where Zika is found.  

Collaboration and climate change 

The project lead Professor Neil French is Director of the Centre for Global Vaccine Research described the “strong collaborative effort” from Liverpool and partners.  

“It is important that we turn our excellent science into products that can protect and improve human health.”  

Professor French suggests that this is the “first of several vaccines” to move from laboratory concept to human use. Dr Krishanthi Subramaniam, a tenure-track research fellow who led on studies that demonstrated the effectiveness of the vaccine in animals, says that “Zika should not be forgotten”. 

“Climate change is contributing to the spread of the Aedes mosquitoes to countries where immunity is not there. Vaccines like ours will enable us to be better prepared for the next Zika outbreak.”  

Dr Subramaniam states that the pandemic “taught and continues to teach us that infectious diseases are a global issue”.  

“With the help of vaccines, we can make great strides in keeping everyone safe.”  

A specialised space 

The study takes part at the NIHR Clinical Research Facility. Dr Richard Fitzgerald is Clinical Research Facility Director and is “pleased to be taking part” in the work. The space is “designed with our participants in mind, giving those on the unit the best environment to take part in life-changing research”.  

Professor Isabel Oliver of UKHSA is “proud” that the UKHSA is playing a “critical role in this milestone moment”. She is glad that they are “carrying out vital work on testing the impact of this novel vaccine in the laboratory using our unique vaccine evaluation capabilities and deploying our recombinant vaccine platform technology to produce the vaccine for testing”.  

“UKHSA continues to enhance its work in vaccine discovery, development, and evaluation, with the aim of strengthening preparedness for future pandemics and other high consequence infectious diseases.”  

We heard about the challenges associated with developing a Zika vaccine at the Congress in Washington this month. To read more about what went on, download the post-Congress report here.