Sharing Zika data can save lives

A government health agent uses larvicides during an operation to kill Aedes aegypti mosquitos that spreads the Zika virus in the Tijuca neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. The Aedes aegypti mosquito lives largely inside homes and can lay eggs in even a bottle-cap's worth of stagnant water. The dishes beneath potted plants are a favorite spot, as are abandoned tires, bird feeders and even the little puddles of rainwater that collect in the folds of plastic tarps. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

On February 1, the World Health Organization declared the Zika Virus a “public health emergency of international concern.” There is increasing evidence of a correlation between the virus and microcephaly, a neonatal malformation characterized by an abnormal smallness of the baby’s head. Little is understood about the virus, but with multiple deaths due to complications from the virus reported from Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela, scientific and medical researchers are scrambling for more information.

Important global health bodies, including academic journals, research funders, research institutes and NGOs, recognize the dangers of this virus and have pledged to share all relevant data and results for this and future public health emergencies openly. This development in the scientific community displays an important recognition that in crucial situations, people’s lives must come before the monetization of science and information.

The Zika Virus is a mosquito borne virus that generally presents itself with usually mild symptoms of fever, rash, red eyes or joint pain for two to seven days, and only 20 percent of those infected with Zika will show symptoms. Despite this, there are many of reasons to be alarmed by this outbreak. Since April 2015, the Zika outbreak spread from Brazil to over thirty countries. A cluster of Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS) and microcephaly cases reported since are suspected to be connected to the virus. According to BBC, Brazil has confirmed about 460 cases of microcephaly, and there are about 3,850 cases still under investigation. The virus was even found in the brains of two babies who lived for about 24 hours.

The initiative to share research during outbreaks has been sporadic. In 2006, during the outbreak of influenza, GISAID, an international consortium of researchers, created a framework for the rapid distribution of relevant scientific results. Yet, during the Middle Eastern repertory syndrome (MERS) outbreak in Saudi Arabia in 2012, disputes over intellectual-property rights stunted the access to samples and information.

Researchers understood the importance for more access to data and results after the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014. Researchers during this crisis were dealing with a scarcity of genetic information about the virus in the public domain. This data was critical to understanding how the virus was evolving and whether vaccines or treatments would be effective.

Thirty of the world’s leading global health bodies are now committed to share free data and expertise concerning international public health emergencies. The signatories include the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the New England Journal of Medicine, WHO and the UK Academy of Medical Sciences. This collaboration of various entities understands the essential role of research in a response to a global health emergency. Despite the possible economic repercussions each institution might face, they willingly committed to this endeavor and serve as role models for other institutions to do the same.

There are so many questions that need to be answered about the Zika virus. Its connection to microcephaly and other disorders that could be linked to it is unclear. Brazil, Venezuela, and Columbia have each connected three deaths to complications of the virus. This initiative will hopefully lead to these questions being answered quicker. It will lead to more eyes on the data and different analyses than if the information was restricted.

As of right now, Brazil is collaborating with the University of Texas to develop a vaccine, with the goal of having thew vaccine in clinical testing within the next year. There is another research consortium, the Global Virus Network with leading scientists based in Baltimore with the same aim of creating a vaccine. With the efforts to share data and results openly, these goals, along with the many other questions involving the virus, are more likely to succeed. It is very important that other institutions make the same pledge for this outbreak and future global health emergencies. These commitments can and will save lives. 


Alyssa Luis is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.