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Photo via Shutterstock.
Photo via Shutterstock.

Millions of athletes, trainers, and adoring sports fans will fill the streets of Rio today. Champions from around the globe will take to the field, the pool, and the court to prove they are the best of the best.

But this year, the world faces a new competitor—one that doesn’t carry a rulebook or wave a national flag. The Zika virus.

Millions of people are now thought to be infected with Zika, with many of those cases concentrated in Brazil, and the virus has spread as far north as Florida.

But the epidemic has been plagued by a lack of information on the virus, how it operates — and even how many people have been infected. The slow response by government and private backers is leaving huge gaps in our understanding of the disease, and research able to get off the ground will take months or years to have an effect.

Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, who researches Zika's effect on pregnancy, says a lack of federal funds is having a huge impact on the response to the disease. Photo from the University of Washington.
Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, who researches Zika’s effect on pregnancy, Photo: University of Washington.

One of the few Zika-specific projects in Seattle was announced last month—Kineta, a Seattle-based biotech startup, was awarded a grant to study the virus from the  National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), one of the National Institutes of Health.

But many other researchers in Seattle are feeling the pressure from a lack of federal funds.

“This is an unprecedented health concern,” said Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, a researcher and physician at the University of Washington who is studying Zika’s impact on pregnancy, quoting CDC director Tom Frieden.

“It’s hard to say it any other way. It’s an epidemic that attacks pregnancies and can result in a severely brain damaged infant,” she said, referring to the  birth defect Microcephaly, common in infants born to mothers with the disease.

The link between Zika and Microcephaly is not fully understood, and there is no way to treat or prevent Microcephaly if a pregnant woman becomes infected. Waldorf added that the cost to support and treat children born with Microcephaly is estimated to be $10 million per child.

“Everything is now moving very, very fast, but we need more money,” Waldorf said. “Congress has not yet allocated money for Zika, so I think like everyone, we’re waiting for this money to come to start this research.”

Some Zika research is taking place in Seattle, but much of it was established before the epidemic began. 

Dr. Michael Gale, UW Professor of immunology and researcher at the Gale Laboratory, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is examining how the body responds to Flaviviruses—a category that includes Zika.

Gale’s team is working on small-molecule therapeutics that will trigger an immune response to shut down virus replication. If successful, it could halt the spread of future epidemics.

But Gale said the most important weapon against the spread of Zika is preventative vaccines, which are being developed at several companies and small research labs around the country.

“The drawback is that it’s going to take a long time to test them and get them approved for use,” he said, “and in the meantime, thousands of people will get new infections.”

“And underlying all this is the fact that our government hasn’t passed any legislation to fund Zika research,” he said, adding that developing vaccines and therapeutics like these takes a great amount of money.

While developing therapeutics and vaccines is essential to treating and preventing infection, Seattle’s Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is tackling the epidemic from a different angle. It is funding programs to fight Zika around the globe through public health campaigns, and is also funding Eliminate Dengue, an Australian-based project that uses bacteria to prevent mosquitoes from transmitting viruses.

The Zika virus is extremely contagious, and is largely spread through mosquito bites. Photo from Shutterstock.
Research funded by the Gates Foundation hopes to use a bacteria to prevent mosquitoes from spreading Zika.  Photo from Shutterstock.

Bryan Callahan, Deputy Director of Global Communications and Engagement at the Gates Foundation, said Eliminate Dengue has shown promise in its initial stages.

The project has conducted several small field tests, successfully infecting mosquito populations with the Wolbachia bacteria, which prevents insects from transmitting diseases when they bite humans.

“The next stage is to go from these small-scale releases up to very large-scale releases in major urban areas, that have populations of 2-4M.”

The new trials, planned for September, will also monitor if the mosquitoes are able to reduce the spread of flavaviruses like Zika, Dengue Fever, and Yellow Fever.

As millions travel home from the Olympics, the Zika epidemic could come with them. And while solutions are on the horizon, for the moment there is little researchers can do to treat those infected or prevent the virus from spreading further.

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