Doctors and researchers all over the world are working to come up with solutions for the Zika virus, but what may be the most progressive research on the subject is happening in labs in Davis.
At first glance, it may seem indistinguishable from an exhibit at the zoo. The nearly 4,200 Rhesus Macaque monkeys at UC Davis’s Primate Research Center may soon hold the key to preventing pregnant women from passing the Zika virus to their newborn babies.
"It is my hope that there will be a Zika vaccine on the market in a few years from now,” said Koen Van Rompay, a researcher and head of the university’s primate research center, where they've now infected four pregnant monkeys with the Zika virus, and have begun studying blood samples from the mother and the fetus.
"We can then gather lots of data out of it and we can use those data to help develop a vaccine,” said Van Rompay.
Its difficult work, Van Rompay says it took months just to determine whether the monkeys respond to Zika the same way humans do. It turns out they do – meaning a successful vaccine test will likely work on humans. Zika's harmful effects, however, appear in the monkeys as well. One primate mother lost her fetus seven days after being infected.
There have been ethical concerns about the animals that’ve been given the Zika virus, but researchers say the potential benefit to humanity far outweighs the risks to the infected primates. The animals do receive high quality veterinarian care, according to Van Rompay.
"Right now we are analyzing those samples to kind of see is there any effect of Zika infection during pregnancy on the development of the fetus,” he added.
Only a handful are infected with Zika, and those few are quarantined in a separate enclosure. Dr. Van Rompay says the team is still months away from testing potential vaccines, but while progress can be slow, the potential impact of their work is immeasurable.