Time is running out. With the Rio Olympics only 70 days away, thousands of people will be congregating in the Brazilian capital, all of whom could be at risk of contracting the latest in a series of internationally reported outbreaks: Zika virus. The virus, spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito commonly results in symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, however, it made the headlines early this year after infection during pregnancy was linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect. In light of this, the world is turning to the scientific community to provide answers to the questions thrown up by the outbreak, and they are proving more than up to the challenge.
“It’s a reflection of enhanced preparedness, and also the willingness of people to collaborate internationally,” says Dr. Rosemary Boyton, head of an immunology laboratory in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London. “All of that contributes to being able to do real research quickly and effectively.”
Dr. Boyton has first hand knowledge of the scientific community’s response to the emerging Zika infection. Along with a team of international immunologists, Dr. Boyton was recently awarded a grant to research Zika virus immunology. Finding funding for research is a notoriously difficult and protracted process and acquiring this grant was no exception. The gargantuan effort saw two research funders, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust gather £4million in the space of two months, in an effort to facilitate research on the Zika virus. And they are not alone. At the end of February 2016, the US government had already diverted $1.9 billion dollars into researching the prevention of Zika virus.
“I think the funders have been really good in terms of their response,” notes Boyton. “The funding bodies have very rapidly produced real pots of money and rapidly distributed it to researchers across the UK and internationally. To have the funding in place so that you can get on and do the research is amazing!”
The research community has also learned to maximize their efforts. Because we have had to deal with infectious disease crises before, the steps to face a new infectious threat seem to be more straightforward, and funders and scientists know which research to focus on first. Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College, received the MRC Wellcome Trust Zika virus research award with Dr. Boyton. He said that the awards given out in the first round “reflect pretty well what people need to know and what’s practical. People want to know about the neuropathology, the diagnostics, the vector biology and the immunology of the disease.”
This strategy seems to have already paid off. Only four months after the outbreak, crucial results are already beginning to gather at a staggering rate, from Zika virus models to diagnostic tests to be taken into the field.
“Observations are being published terribly fast!” says Professor Altman. “Almost every single day there are publications from the medical journals that are absolutely key parts of the jigsaw puzzle!”
And scientists aren’t letting the dragging academic publishing systems weigh them down. Since January 2016 alone, over 500 scientific articles have been published mentioning the Zika virus, compared to only 36 in 2015. Because of electronic publishing, results can be expedited through the system to be propagated across the world as soon as possible. Altmann also notes that “some of the teams who were awarded funding have said they weren’t going to wait for formal biomedical publishing, instead they would publish their results in real time on research blogs.”
These new tools have allowed us to take the scientific community into the 21st century. In a time where everyone can be a citizen of the world, infection travels with people, and science has learned that response to infection must be streamlined and efficient. “If you think about when the HIV infection came about [between] 1981 to 1983, with massive effort it took us five, six years to get to having a clue of what was going on,” said Altmann. “Today, we can shorten that to five or six months!”
Time will tell us whether we can get the pieces of the jigsaw in place to curb the outbreak by Rio 2016, but we certainly have our best minds on board to solve the puzzle.
Marianne Guenot is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.