Over the last few weeks, Zika virus has exploded into the public consciousness. The virus was previously thought to be a temporary tropical aggravation, but a link to microcephaly (a serious birth defect) has made diagnosis, treatment and prevention of this mosquito-borne illness a public health priority.
What are the next steps for the research community, and what challenges need to be overcome?
A Three-Pronged Approach
While the virus has been known for decades, the rise of Zika as a public health emergency has been sudden. There is little previous research to build on for development of treatments, diagnostics or vaccines. There are no medications or vaccines presently available.
Public health agencies and the research community will need a fast, coordinated plan in order to stem the spread of the disease and protect unborn children from potentially devastating birth defects. This will require three main avenues of research:
The first line of defense is control of the avenues of transmission. WHO has recommended that women who are pregnant or may be become pregnant avoid traveling to areas with high rates of Zika infection, and women living in these areas take extra precautions against mosquito bites. Some countries and local communities have stepped up efforts to control mosquito populations. People at risk for infection should use condoms to prevent transmission to their partners.
A rapid field-based diagnostic assay is urgently needed to help track and control the spread of Zika. Zika can mimic other flaviviruses such as dengue or yellow fever, and is often completely asymptomatic. A reliable field-based diagnostic could be used to determine whether pregnant women have been exposed so doctors can monitor fetal development in at-risk mothers. It would also provide invaluable information for epidemiologists tracking the disease and help community health organizations put effective containment and vector control efforts in place.
Ultimately, a vaccine may be the best line of defense against the spread of Zika. Controlling mosquitos and sexual behavior are both notoriously difficult propositions, so vector control on its own is not likely to provide reliable long-term protection. An effective vaccine would protect women before and during pregnancy and significantly reduce the number of infected people who could act as avenues of transmission.
Next Steps for the Research Community
Vaccine development efforts are already underway, but it is likely to be years before a commercially available vaccine is available. Vaccines typically take seven to 10 years to go from concept to market.
For the current pandemic, development of new diagnostic assays may offer the most immediate benefit. Diagnostics can generally be developed in a much shorter time frame than vaccines. Diagnostic kits that can be deployed in local clinics in areas where Zika is active would help healthcare providers identify at-risk pregnant women and counsel infected people of both sexes in how to avoid sexual transmission and mosquito bites.
Battelle has a long history of work in vaccine and assay development, including work on rare and deadly diseases such as Ebola and pandemic-causing viruses such as MERS, and we’ve joined the international effort to curb Zika.