Zika is a mosquito-borne viral disease caused by the Zika virus (ZIKV) that has spread through the South Pacific and through large parts of Latin America since March 2015. There is scientific consensus that Zika virus is a cause of severe congenital brain malformations in infants born to mothers infected during pregnancy; in addition, evidence indicates that the virus also may cause Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults. The importance of a rapid research response to the Zika outbreak was highlighted by the WHO declaration on 1 February 2016 that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
On 13 October 2016, WHO stated that 67 countries and territories have reported evidence of mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission from 2015 onwards, and 22 have reported microcephaly and other central nervous system malformations that are potentially associated with Zika virus infection.
EU-funded research projects
The European Union is investing €45 million in research to fight outbreaks caused by emerging infections such as the Zika virus.
Following the publication of a specific call to address the Zika research gaps, three consortia were selected for EU Horizon 2020 funding for a total of €30 million: ZikaPLAN, ZIKAction and ZikAlliance. The three research consortia will collaborate to fill the knowledge gaps on Zika infection and its consequences for pregnant women, new-born babies and adults, and they will also develop improved diagnostic tests and investigate options for treatment and prevention. The consortia will work together to set up a Latin American and Caribbean network for emerging infectious diseases preparedness and response, aiming to support a coherent research response to outbreaks of Zika and other emerging infectious diseases.
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- ZikaPLAN is coordinated by the Umeå University in Sweden. It includes 25 partners from Europe, Latin and North America, Africa and Asia, and will investigate the clinical spectrum of Zika virus disease, the disease transmission mode, immunological consequences of infection, innovation in diagnostics novel personal preventive measures.
- ZIKAction is coordinated by the Penta Foundation in Italy and includes 13 partners in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. ZIKAction is a smaller consortium that mainly focuses on clinical studies, including prospective cohorts of pregnant women and newborns.
- ZikAlliance, coordinated by INSERM in France, is the largest consortium with 53 partners in Europe, Latin and North America, Africa, Asia and islands in the Pacific Ocean. They will do studies on the clinical spectrum of the disease and its natural history, transmission modes and animal reservoirs, mathematical modelling, vector competence and control, and social studies.
Two additional projects are being prepared for a total budget of €10 million, focusing on the development of a safe, effective, and affordable vaccine against Zika virus infection, and on supporting facilities for research into insects that transmit infectious diseases.
- ZIKAVAX is coordinated by the European Vaccine Initiative and includes 4 partners. It aims to develop a safe, effective, and affordable vaccine against Zika virus infection.
- The INFRAVEC2 project, coordinated by Institut Pasteur and presently under grant preparation, includes 24 partners from Europe, Africa and the Pacific. The overall objective of the project is to integrate key specialised research facilities necessary for European excellence in insect vector biology, to open the infrastructure for European access, and to develop new vector control measures targeting the greatest threats to human health and animal industries.
Other ongoing research projects on dengue fever and other diseases related to Zika, including projects on preparedness research, have taken up Zika related research in response to the ongoing outbreak.
- COMPARE is a large EU project with the intention to speed up the detection of and response to disease outbreaks like Zika among humans and animals worldwide through the use of new genome technology.
- If locally-transmitted Zika is detected in Europe, clinical research project PREPARE (Platform for European Preparedness Against (Re-) emerging Epidemics) is ready to quickly collect crucial clinical data to improve patient management:
- The PREPARE ARBO virus study in the Balkans which started in May 2016 has been modified so that adult Zika cases, can be identified. The project is prepared to expand the study to Italy, France, Spain, Slovenia and Montenegro, areas where the Aedes albopictus mosquito is present, depending on how the Zika epidemic evolves.
- PREPARE has collaborated with ISARIC to establish publically available Zika research tools to collect clinical standardised neonate and maternal clinical and laboratory data.
- Information regarding European laboratory preparedness to detect Zika infection has been collected from PREPARE and COMBACTE LAB-Net laboratory contacts through an ECDC Zika questionnaire and is currently being analysed.
Coordinated global action
The European Commission swiftly responded in December 2015 by initiating a series of consultations within the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), a global network of major public and private funders of preparedness research. Funders, public health authorities from the affected countries, as well as experts and researchers in relevant fields from the affected countries and GloPID-R members were invited to establish research priorities, track research capacity, and share any research activities that are ongoing or under development.
From 30 November to 2 December 2016, a joint GloPID-R workshop will take place in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to foster collaboration between the Zika research projects funded by GloPID-R members.