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Researchers are rushing to get vaccines out, but this one isn't for COVID-19

Posted at 8:01 AM, May 18, 2021

All eyes are on COVID-19 vaccines, but researchers are still working on protection against other serious illnesses.

A Southern California virologist is racing against the clock to create a vaccine for the Zika virus.

Dr. Rong Hai's job is to study viruses and their virulence at the University of California, Riverside. He's also an assistant professor who's spent his career studying infections like the swine flu.

"There's a nickname for viruses," Hai said. "It's a protein wrapped up in a bag of bad news for humans."

Hai says that bag of bad news is now a pandemic, and there are other viruses out there. Others, he said, can be just as deadly.

"Viruses do not discriminate who you are and what you are," Hai said. "They're our common enemy."

Dr. Hai's research on Zika got the attention of the National Institutes of Health. He was given $1.9 million and the next five years to figure out how humans can overcome Zika, which you can get from infected mosquitoes.

"Viruses, it's always surprising you in unpredictability. It's our duty and responsibility in the community to always make us ready for something, and Zika is one of those viral pathogens, and we need to prepare more for them."

Ultimately, he'd like to create a vaccine for it. Right now, there isn't one.

"It really can be a devastating disease for women if their infant is infected," said Dr. Susan Hills, a medical epidemiologist in the division of vector-borne diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hills is a physician who now deals with populations rather than patients.

She investigates insect diseases and said mosquitoes could carry more than 100 different types of diseases.

"West Nile Virus, St. Louis Encephalitis, La Crosse Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus - there's a number we focus on in the U.S.," Dr. Hills said. "And then we're also responsible for monitoring and thinking about prevention of some of the global mosquito-borne diseases like Yellow Fever, Zika, Chikungunya, tick-borne encephalitis other diseases like that."

Right now, she says, there's no transmission of Zika in the continental U.S., but all we have for protection is repellent, long clothing, and doing things like clearing standing water around your home.

"Zika is an important disease with the outbreak in the Americas, it really brought it to the forefront in terms of the potentially serious complications of the illness, and so I think it's great that there are efforts to develop a vaccine."

As for Dr. Hai, he says he's confident in himself and his team that they'll make that 5-year goal, but above all else, he'd like to serve the greater good with his expertise.

"As a human being, I would like to protect or do something for our own folks to use my limited knowledge to be beneficial for our own."