By Austin Harrington

It was purely coincidental that U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, toured an Ames bio-pharmaceutical company that is working on a vaccine for the Zika Virus on the same day that the first case was discovered in Iowa, but that didn’t stop Ernst from using the coincidence to highlight the importance of the work being done in the Iowa State University Research Park.

“We know now that there is a confirmed case of Zika that a lady has here in Iowa. Does that speed things up? Not necessarily,” Ernst said. “It was important before we had a confirmed case here in Iowa.”

Ernst said that the work being done by NewLink Genetics, the Ames company working on a Zika Virus vaccine, is important to everybody in the world, not just Americans.

NewLink announced in early February that the company planned on throwing its hat into the ring among the other companies attempting to develop a vaccine for the virus that has been receiving so much attention worldwide.

The Zika Virus was discovered in 1947 in monkeys living in the Zika Forest in Uganda, according to Brian Martin, vice president of infectious disease for NewLink.

Martin told Ernst during her tour of the research and development labs Friday that the virus had only infected about a dozen humans before 2007 and it was never thought of as a virus that could be potentially dangerous on a global scale.

“And then it started having outbreaks that included French-Polynesia and the Yap Islands in the South Pacific and then started marching across the Pacific,” Martin said while speaking to Ernst. “The hypothesis is that during the World Cup in Brazil, that’s when it got introduced to Brazil and took off.”

Hospitalization is rarely required for adults infected with Zika, but it has been causally linked to birth defects such as microcephaly, a condition characterized by abnormally small heads at birth. Confirmation of those links have yet to be proven.

Ernst said that because of the amount of people infected with the virus who live outside of the United States, the vaccine should be important to Americans but it’s also gives Americans a chance to help other nations.

“Everytime we see a situation like this, especially when it hits the borders and it’s within our borders, we want to make sure we’re focusing efforts there but if you look at it globally, this is a solution where we can be a leader as well. So, even before it started coming to our own country it was a great concern because we knew at some point it would need to be addressed here so it’s better to address it in those outlying populations before we see it in our own,” Ernst said.

According to Martin, the research and development of the vaccine will be done at their facilities in Ames, but after that point NewLink will hand off the vaccine to a company who specializes in infectious disease to manufacture the vaccine.

The infectious disease program at NewLink took a large step into the limelight in 2014 when it entered into a partnership with Merck &Co. to develop an Ebola Virus vaccine. Martin said that NewLink is hoping to continue that reputation in the biotech world with development of the Zika vaccine, which is currently being worked by as many as 14 other companies along with NewLink.

“In the end, you just hope that whatever gets out there is effective against the virus,” Martin said. “That kind of work, I think is good. It makes people work harder and work faster because we recognize that if we go slow, number one we won’t help as many people and number two that vaccine might not ever reach the market.”

Martin added that the development of a vaccine is in the very early stages and it may be some time for a product is ready for public use.