With every new case of the Zika virus comes a growing urgency to develop a vaccine.
Researchers at the University Of Texas Rio Grande Valley say that they are working hard to find that vaccine despite limited federal funding.
“I’ve always wanted to help out in something that could help out people,” said Juan Garcia, an undergraduate student at UT-RGV. “And research in this type of virus is very important because we just don’t know all the answers to it yet.”
Garcia studies biology at UT-RGV and is part of a research team along with two of his professors at the forefront of the battle against Zika.
“We expect that the border is going to be the first place that we’re going to see the disease,” said Dr. John Thomas, an assistant professor at UT-RGV.
Dr. Thomas estimates that about 40 percent of the border population could be exposed to Zika once local mosquitoes begin to carry it.
There are four Texas institutions with research facilities studying Zika. UTRGV has two strains of it in stock, samples they’ll begin using in the hopes of better understanding the virus and developing a treatment for those infected. Researchers need to understand how the virus replicates when passed on from mother to fetus and its effects on the brain.
“Then we can begin to develop treatments and therapeutics and strategies beyond just saying right now, ‘Put mosquito spray on, don’t go outside at night, and wear long clothing,'” Dr. Thomas said. “Because right now, the only treatment we really have in Zika is prevention.”
However, Dr. Thomas says that proper research also depends on funding.
“With the economy and the gridlock in capitol hill, there’s been very little release of funds for Zika. So, I think there’s a lot of people trying to do stuff and maybe there’s just not the money there to do it,” he said.
Dr. Christopher Vitek, who focuses on the vector side of the research, and his students, will have to do with what resources they have while carrying a certain responsibility to find help for those who have been affected by Zika.
“There’s this public health perspective as well that what you’re doing has real world consequences, so it puts a little urgency on that system and the research that you’re doing trying to figure this thing out,” Dr. Vitek noted. “So ultimately something that you find out might aid someone in stopping the transmission, breaking the disease cycle or something like that.”
Depending on future funding, professors here at UT-RGV are hoping to open a new lab dedicated to Zika research by early spring.