HARTFORD — As at least two Connecticut companies get closer to developing a vaccine for the dreaded Zika virus, Connecticut’s U.S. senators warned that attempts by congressional Republicans to stop federal funding for Planned Parenthood threaten legislation that would invest $1.1 billion to combat the mosquito-borne illness.
Manon M.J. Cox, president and CEO of the Meriden-based Protein Sciences Corp., which has about 130 employees, said Tuesday that the company would begin toxicity studies on a potential vaccine later this month. She said Protein Sciences has formed a consortium with number of groups in Brazil, Argentina, Japan and Mexico.
“We’re making a protein-based vaccine based on how we produce our influenza vaccine,” Cox said. The company’s patented system re-engineers the natural infection process of insect cells and produces large amounts of pure protein that contains crucial antibodies.
Bijan Almassian, co-founder and CEO of CargoGen Corp., based in Farmington, said Tuesday that his firm is in the early stages of vaccine development.
“We’ve just begun to look into the Zika virus,” Almassian said, stressing that a University of Connecticut professor who is from Brazil is providing first-hand expertise.
Both state firms could stand to gain if the legislation wins approval.
But with the Senate set to recess next week until the end of the summer, Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both D-Conn., charged that conservative Republicans who run both houses of Congress are putting public health in danger even as the virus expands its foothold in the continental United States.
While only 22 cases have been reported in Connecticut, including three in pregnant women, Murphy said he expects more cases are likely already here.
“We know those numbers are the tip of the iceberg,” Murphy said in a morning news conference in the Capitol complex. “As we talk about the need for federal funding, one of the primary needs is to continue to do research into this disease to understand what the real peril is for citizens here in Connecticut.
“Zika is coming and we will not be able to stop it unless the federal government steps up and provides emergency funding to try to research and combat this disease,” Murphy said.
He said a bipartisan Senate bill that had the $1.1 billion in funding went to a conference committee and the revised legislation included a House GOP effort to defund Planned Parenthood, as well as $250 million in reductions to the Veterans Administration. President Barack Obama had requested $1.9 billion.
Murphy stressed that unless a deal is reached before the end of business on July 17, there would be no emergency federal funding at the height of the summer mosquito season.
“This is unconscionable,” he said.
A widening threat
Coincidentally, Blumenthal said that CargoGen and Protein Science might be “on the cusp” of developing a vaccine for Zika.
“House Republicans have added political poisons pills to this legislation that will prevent research for the vaccine, eradication of the mosquitoes and education of the public,” he said.
“The American people are going to hold our colleagues responsible this November,” said Blumenthal, who is up for re-election.
Last week, $320,000 in federal funding was given to the state Department of Public Health, as a stopgap measure for emergency planning if Zika cases increase.
Dr. Ulysses Wu, section chief of infectious diseases at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, said that while Zika cases were first diagnosed in 1947, the disease didn’t appear in the Western Hemisphere until 2013. In 2015, the largest outbreaks occurred in Brazil.
“This is going to affect all of us,” Wu told reporters. “We should learn our lessons from Ebola, where we don’t have the vaccine. I’m not sure what the role of partisan politics is for the medicine, but the medicine will exist with or without partisan politics.”
Maura Downes, director of communications for the state Department of Public Health, said the agency expects a multi-year effort.
“This is not a one-year virus,” Downes said. “And while we’ve put the infrastructure in place to address Zika virus, increased federal funding will be crucial for our efforts to combat the virus in future years.”