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Scientist Studying ‘Orphan Virus’ Zika: ‘Impossible’ to Get Grant Five Years Ago

An American researcher, who identified the Zika virus as a potential threat in 2009, tells the journal Wired that it would have been impossible to attain funding to research Zika exclusively five years ago, as few believed it had the potential to cause an outbreak as large as that currently underway in Latin America.

“Frankly it would have been impossible for me or anyone else to get grant to work on Zika,” Scott Weaver, a medical entomologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch,” tells Wired, discussing a grant he and a colleague received to study yellow fever and chikungunya virus in Senegal in 2011. Both yellow fever and chikungunya, along with dengue fever and Zika, are spread through bites from the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Weaver used the opportunity to study Zika as well but deems its presence in his paper an afterthought.

One of the potential reasons it took scientists so long to consider Zika a threat appears in Weaver’s 2011 paper: African populations appeared to be resistant to the virus. “A serological study in Nigeria showed that 40% of an urban population had neutralizing antibodies to ZIKV,” the scientists write. Weaver tells Wired with some surprise that it was “amazing” he and colleague William Reisen of UC Davis mentioned Zika as a threat in a 2009 paper. “You usually get these kinds of things wrong,” he notes.

Robert Tesh, the head of the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses at the University of Texas Medical Branch, describes Zika as an “orphan virus” in the Wired piece. It generated little interest before the end of 2015 in the scientific community because it posed little threat to humans, or so many medical experts believed.

The Zika virus does not trigger any symptoms in 80 percent of humans infected, and only mild symptoms in most who do show them: conjunctivitis, fever, and rashes. It tends to clear up within a week.

The rapid spread of Zika through Latin America — particularly Brazil, which has documented 1.5 million cases — has changed the medical community’s outlook on the virus. Its prevalence has also revealed the possibility that Zika can cause severe deformities in infants and a crippling muscular ailment in adults. Brazil has recorded over 4,000 cases of microcephaly, a deformity in which a child is born with neurological damage stemming from an undersized skull, in newborns, all suspected of having been triggered by the mother’s infection with Zika. In addition, doctors have diagnosed an increasing number of Zika patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes severe muscle aches, paralysis, and death.

Weaver’s conclusion that it would have been impossible to receive a grant to study Zika in 2011 echoes more recent concerns from the Brazilian virologist largely considered to have discovered the presence of Zika, an African virus, in Brazil. Gubio Soares confirmed the presence of Zika in infants with microcephaly in Brazil in April 2015. His discovery was largely considered inconsequential because of the widespread belief that Zika was not a threat to humans. “Zika virus is not as serious as Dengue or Chikungunya,” Soares himself said in April. He confesses to the Mexican outlet Oro Negro this week that he felt “relief” at having discovered it because “reference books said that it was much less aggressive than the viruses that had already been in Brazil.”

By January, however, when the threat Zika posed to the unborn had become clear, Soares noted that he could no longer work to understand Zika better because, simply, “I have no funding.” He protested that “I’ve never been invited by any official to develop a research project” despite his pivotal role in identifying the outbreak.

Soares implied to the New York Times on Thursday that he does not believe Brazilians are taking the threat of Zika too seriously, calling the widespread national celebration of Carnival this week “absurd.” “It’s like Caesar in Rome: He gave the people circus and bread, but in Brazil we only get the circus,” he lamented.

Outside of Latin America, researchers who want to contribute to the fight against Zika have been frustrated by Brazil stringent laws regarding the sharing of physical virus samples. The scientific community worldwide is doing what it can to diminish the barriers that keep researchers from being able to share discoveries. In a statement, 11 journal publishers vowed to make freely available any new research on Zika, and 20 funding organizations vowed that they would contribute to speeding up the process of sharing information among those who receive grants from them. Their efforts do not cover physical samples of Zika, however.

“Our source is simply the rich people who want a diagnosis,” Dr. Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, an expert on mosquito-borne diseases at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, tells Science, noting that the only hope he has for obtaining live Zika is to find a patient that happens to turn to him for help.

“It’s a very delicate issue, this sharing of samples. Lawyers have to be involved,” said Dr. Marcos Espinal, director of communicable diseases in the World Health Organization’s regional office in Washington, told the Associated Press about obtaining Brazilian samples.

This week, Brazilian authorities said that they had found a legal way to share live samples with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It is not yet known when the CDC will obtain these samples.

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