Zika Goes Mainstream

Zika virus, a formerly obscure mosquito-borne virus that was only rarely known to cause human disease –and only a mild, flu-like illness when it did– has burst on the international scene with a vengeance in recent months. After infecting international travelers, the virus has moved beyond its traditional arena of Africa and gained a foothold in the Americas, with tragic consequences in a population that has no immunity.

In Brazil, where the first confirmed Zika infection was reported in May 2015, thousands of babies with serious neurological complications have been born in the intervening months. Although the Zika virus has not been unquestionably identified as the cause of microcephaly –a tragic birth defect caused by intrauterine infection and manifesting as an abnormally small cranium–, the spatiotemporal coincidence and the lack of other known causes strongly support a link. Only 9 months after the initial reports, Zika has become a household word in more than 20 countries. More than 3-4 million individuals could become infected with Zika over the next few years, according to some estimates.

The Zika virus, which belongs to the same flavivirus family as dengue, West Nile and yellow fever viruses, is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. The most frequent mosquito vector is Aedes aegypti, also known as the yellow fever mosquito, which is present in most temperate zones of the planet and which is highly adapted to human environments.

Following an incubation period of a few days, approximately 20% of those bitten by the virus-carrying mosquito will develop symptoms, which are usually similar to those of a mild case of flu. If the individual is bitten by another mosquito during the viremic period, the insect becomes infected with Zika and while unaffected, is able to continue spreading the disease with each new blood meal. If a pregnant woman becomes infected, particularly during the first two trimesters of gestation, her unborn child may run an increased risk of microcephaly.

On February 1, after considering the "explosive" spread of the disease through an unprotected population in a region where the vector is firmly established, together with the potentially tragic consequences of maternal infection, the World Health Organization declared Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The 18 experts and advisors convened by WHO Director General Margaret Chan agreed that there is an urgent need for research into new diagnostics, vaccine and antiviral drugs to combat the Zika pandemic as well as the research to prove the link between Zika infection and congenital malformations, particularly microcephaly. In the experts' view, Chan said, "A coordinated international response is needed to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread."

Shortly thereafter, several pharmaceutical and biotech companies announced their intention to enter this area of investigation, and public funds were mobilized to support research efforts. The table below attempts to summarize the equally explosive proliferation of announcements that have appeared in Thomson Reuters Drug News, BioWorld and other news sources over the last week.

zika virus

A new Disease Briefing on the topic of Zika Virus Infection has been added to the Thomson Reuters Cortellis and Integrity(SM) databases. This continuously updated report provides a scientifically accurate, rigorously curated overview of the outbreak, and highlights research efforts that aim to stem the tide of new infections as quickly as possible.

Download the disease briefing on the Zika Virus here >>

For more information
1. Cohen, J. Fears that Zika causes brain damage in infants sparks vaccine hunt. Science News (February 2, 2016). Available at http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/02/fears-zika-causes-brain-damage-infants-sparks-vaccine-hunt.
2. Collins, F. Zika virus: An emerging health threat. NIH Director's Blog (January 26, 2016). http://directorsblog.nih.gov/2016/01/26/zika-virus-an-emerging-health-threat/.
3. Microcephaly/Zika virus. World Health Organization website. Available at http://www.who.int/emergencies/zika-virus/en/.

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