Growing Threat of Zika Virus Highlights Need for Improved Flavivirus Therapeutics

by Robert W. Buckheit III, PhD, Director, Immunology and Flow Cytometry Services

January 25, 2016

Just a few months ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, efforts to combat flaviviruses, such as Dengue, Chikungunya and Zika, have intensified in Brazil, as the incidence rate of Zika virus has steadily increased. Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and typically causes a mild, non-life threatening fever. This alarmed few as the virus became widespread in Africa and Southeast Asia and was recently introduced into Latin America. A large percentage of cases present with no symptoms, and even those with symptoms, such as fever, rash and red eyes, rarely require hospitalization. However, in recent months, reports have suggested a connection between Zika virus infection in expecting mothers and microcephaly, infants born with abnormally small heads. Health officials in Brazil are currently investigating 3,500 cases of microcephaly.

Alarmingly, epidemiologists estimate that since the virus was introduced to Brazil in May of 2015, one and a half million Brazilians have already been infected with Zika virus. This suggests that the number of microcephaly cases will continue to rise while Brazilian health experts attempt to contain the mosquito-borne infection. Concern over the virus has led  the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta to issue a travel warning for pregnant women advising them against travel in the Caribbean and Latin America where Zika virus transmission is most prevalent.

Zika virus is not the first mosquito-borne virus to wreak havoc in the tropics. Latin American countries have combated several flaviviruses for many years. Brazilian soldiers have been dispatched to destroy habitats where mosquitos thrive; tests of a vaccine against dengue fever virus are ongoing in Mexico and Brazil; and mosquitos infected with a genetically modified bacteria are being tested in Columbia to combat the spread of mosquitos. However, the incidence of flavivirus infections, such as Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya continues to grow, underscoring the difficulty in breaking the mosquito-to-human transmission cycle.

Currently, seventeen Latin American and Caribbean countries have reported active Zika virus transmission, and this number is increasing. A baby was also born in Hawaii with brain damage, possibly as a result of Zika virus infection acquired when the mother was living in Brazil during her pregnancy. No active Zika virus transmission has been reported in Hawaii, but it is estimated that 23 million people in the United States live in places with climates where Zika virus can be transmitted year round. Hawaii is also dealing with one of the largest outbreaks of Dengue fever on Hawaii (the Big Island), the first outbreak since 2011, with 223 cases currently reported.

ImQuest BioSciences recognizes the growing threat of flavivirus infection and believes this danger underscores the vital need for new and improved therapeutic products and prevention technologies to combat these infections. With years of experience and established state-of-the-art in vitro models, we have the capability to evaluate the efficacy and toxicity of novel products designed to combat a range of flaviviruses and to support their IND-directed development.

For more information on our infectious disease and flavivirus programs as part of our ViroSENS platform please Contact Us.

Source Articles: "Hawaii Baby With Brain Damage is First U.S. Case Tied to Zika Virus" and "Zika Warning Spotlights Latin America’s Fight Against Mosquito-Bourne Diseases" published in the New York Times.

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