Brazil’s health minister, Marcelo Castro, recently announced that the country has signed an agreement with a Texas research hospital for the joint development of a vaccine against the Zika virus. According to a news release, the project will be developed between the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston and the Evandro Chagas Institute in the city of Belem, Brazil, two institutes that specialize in the study of viruses transmitted by mosquitoes. Brazil’s investment in this vaccine development project will be $1.9 million.
The Zika virus’s active outbreaks are creating a public health crisis in several South American countries, especially in Brazil. The virus is mainly transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, the same mosquitoes that spread dengue, although spread of the virus through blood transfusion and sexual contact has already been reported.
Infection with the Zika virus leads to symptoms that are usually mild and tend to resolve in two to seven days, including mild fever, skin rashes, and muscle and joint pain. However, Brazil recently reported a third adult fatal case that may be related to the Zika virus: a 20-year old woman who died due to severe respiratory problems that were originally thought to be caused by pneumonia, but traces of Zika were found in her blood. It is important to emphasize that this death, as well as transmission and fetus defects, are still being investigated, and causation has not yet been completely proven, despite many reports in the media.
Status of the public health crisis has mainly derived from the increasing amount of evidence linking the Zika viral infection of pregnant women to babies born with microcephaly, a rare condition developed in utero or during infancy where the baby’s head is smaller than normal, and which can be associated with mental and physical disabilities. Due to the increasing suspicion of a link between Zika and such defects, pregnant women have been encouraged to avoid traveling to the affected countries.
A great deal of research is being employed to discover if Zika infection is indeed the cause of the higher incidence of microencephalies, although other causes are also being investigated.
Brazil’s government has also established a partnership for vaccine development with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and aims to develop a collaboration with the pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) due to its role in the development of the Ebola vaccine.