Fighting Back Against Zika: New Research & Tests Added to the Arsenal


Florida reports first case of sexually-transmitted Zika of 2017, while funds continue to be released for new research efforts against the virus and tests to aid in rapid diagnosis.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that prevalence of Zika virus in the Americas has been winding down, researchers around the world are still working on learning more about the virus to prevent outbreaks and protect individuals from infection.

One aspect that researchers continue to explore is mode of transmission of the virus. Zika can be sexually transmitted from one individual to his/her sexual partner, and the Florida Department of Health has just confirmed the first sexually-transmitted Zika virus case of 2017, in Pinellas County.

The individual did not report any travel; however, their partner reported recently traveling to Cuba (an area with active Zika virus) and exhibiting symptoms consistent with Zika virus infection. The Florida DOH confirmed that both individuals tested positive for the virus. As a result of these findings, “mosquito reduction activities” are underway in Pinellas County.

“There is no evidence of ongoing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes in any area of Florida,” according to the Florida DOH; however, this case underscores the need to remember that Zika can be transmitted through sexual intercourse. As such, individuals who have recently traveled to an area with active Zika virus transmission should use condoms to protect their partner.

New information about the modes of transmission for the virus continues to come to light as new research is completed. To aid in these efforts, the National Institutes of Health recently awarded a grant of over $3 million to the Florida International University (FIU) Biomolecular Sciences Institute to study diseases linked with warm, humid climates, such as Zika virus.

A total of $650,000 of the grant was awarded to an assistant professor of biology at FIU, Laura Serbus, PhD, to model the growth of Wolbachia—a bacteria present in up to 60% of insects—in fruit flies. The bacteria, “has the potential to help researchers curb the spread of viruses such as Zika,” the South Florida Business Journal reported this week.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also been working to help research progress against the Zika virus. This past week they issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the TaqPath Zika Virus kit “for the in vitro qualitative detection of Zika virus with specified instruments.” According to the press release, the assay tests for Zika virus RNA in human urine and serum, which is “collected alongside a patient-matched serum specimen.”

Health officials hope the test will help outbreak response. “Thermo Fisher’s global network and instrument install base will enable clinical diagnostic labs to easily access our Zika test,” Mark Smedley, president of Genetic Sciences for Thermo Fisher Scientific, commented in a recent news release. “As with previous outbreaks, our response is focused on providing standardized testing solutions that simplify the workflow for labs addressing public health threats. The FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization issued for our Zika test supports that effort.”

The FDA offers a fact sheet on the emergency use of the kit, explaining that the kit is needed at this time because currently, in the United States, there are no FDA-approved/cleared tests available that are capable of detecting Zika in clinical specimens; this test can remedy that for emergency situations. The FDA notes that specimens from individuals should only be tested if they meet CDC Zika clinical and/or epidemiological criteria, and the testing is only to be conducted by US laboratories that “are certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA), 42 U.S.C. §263a, to perform high complexity tests, or by similarly qualified non-U.S. laboratories.”

The prevalence of the virus may be decreasing; however, continued research to better understand the virus, and ways to prevent infection, are necessary to protect those who are at risk and hinder future outbreaks.

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