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Biological Chemistry

Labs made advances in Zika research

Although funding to fight the virus was stymied, scientists hit milestones

by Sarah Everts
December 14, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 49

Credit: Oscar Rivera/EPA/Newscom
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—their larvae shown here—have been named the culprit in transmitting Zika.
Table of facts about Zika virus.
Credit: Oscar Rivera/EPA/Newscom
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—their larvae shown here—have been named the culprit in transmitting Zika.

In January, the Pan American Health Organization announced an alarming rise in cases of microcephaly and other birth defects among newborns in Brazil, a trend that seemed to coincide with the spread of Zika virus-infected mosquitoes across the country. Shortly thereafter, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.”

In the U.S., the Obama Administration requested $1.9 billion from Congress in February to fund development of Zika vaccines and diagnostics, as well as to find new strategies to control the virus’s mosquito vectors.

But political bickering stalled approval for seven months and forced federal agencies to perform accounting acrobatics to address the health threat. For example, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention shifted allocations from Ebola research into Zika accounts. Finally, in late September, Congress approved $1.1 billion in stop-gap funding to battle Zika—what many health advocates worried was too little, too late.

“Despite the funding included in the bill, the U.S. response to the Zika crisis remains woefully restricted and inadequate,” opined Nina Besser Doorley of the International Women’s Health Coalition. “The United States failed to act until Zika reached its shores and is trying to catch up.”

Meanwhile, rivals in the publishing industryScience, Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine, and others—put politicians to shame as they agreed jointly in February to make all Zika-related research articles available for free.

As the year wore on, evidence of Zika’s impact on developing fetuses mounted. By summer, most scientists concurred that the mosquito-borne virus was crossing the placental barrier in pregnant women and interrupting healthy fetal brain development.

A flurry of work in laboratories around the world resulted in many milestone advances: Scientists sequenced the genome of the epidemic’s virus, solved the three-dimensional structure of the virus’s protective protein shell, tracked how Zika crosses the placenta, identified potential host and viral proteins involved in infection, and performed initial screens for molecules that might prevent this interaction.

Although much work remains to protect pregnant women and their unborn babies, there’s cause for cautious optimism: A dozen diagnostic tools to identify the pathogen and several Zika vaccines are currently being tested on humans in the clinic.


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