Brazil: Laws Protecting Genetic Material Keeping Key Zika Samples from Scientists

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Health officials of the United States and United Nations are complaining that Brazil is not providing enough data and fresh samples to help them combat the Zika viral outbreak.

The Associated Press cites sources who said that “having so little to work with is hampering their ability to track the virus’ evolution.” The AP cites reports claiming that Brazil has provided fewer than twenty samples during the current outbreak.

“Laboratories in the United States and Europe are being forced to work with samples from previous outbreaks, and is frustrating efforts to develop diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines,” the AP adds.

America’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is reportedly working with a Zika strain taken from a 2013 outbreak in French Polynesia, as are the French, while the U.K. is using samples from an even older Micronesian outbreak in 2007.

Surprisingly, the obstacle appears to be mostly legal in nature: Brazil has laws that prevent its researchers from sharing genetic material, including blood samples. The relevant Brazilian laws were implemented fairly recently, so the necessary regulatory framework remains largely unwritten. The American and Brazilian governments are said to be working on removing these legal obstacles.

Several scientists quoted by the Associated Press are debating the consequences of such a limited supply. Some believe the sample scarcity was not a serious obstacle yet, because there is no effective vaccine awaiting production. Others expressed frustration at the difficulty of developing diagnostic routines, or studying the link between Zika and suspected birth defects, without an adequate supply of current material. One researcher spoke of essentially smuggling samples out of Brazil, courtesy of wealthy patients with the will and means to defy the law.

Although scientists quoted by the AP universally stressed the importance of sharing samples and data, it is also noted that Brazil is not the only country that makes it difficult, and this is not the first time research into an epidemic has been hampered by legal hassles or government interference. “More than a decade ago, WHO faced a similar problem when Indonesia refused to hand over bird flu samples, arguing that Western scientists would use them to make drugs and vaccines the country couldn’t afford,” the AP recalls.

On Friday afternoon, a follow-up report from the Associated Press said that Brazilian officials have agreed to send a set of Zika samples to the United States. The earlier AP report, which touched off “a flurry of messages acknowledging that existing data-sharing mechanisms were deficient” from World Health Organization officials, was credited with convincing Brazil to provide more research material.


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