Canadian researchers join international fight against Zika 

The spread of the Zika virus, which can cause devastating birth defects, has become a pressing public health issue in many countries. To this day, there is no vaccine to prevent and no medicine to treat Zika virus infections.

The Honourable Jane Philpott, Canada’s Minister of Health, announced a $3 million investment for Zika research in May 2016. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), in partnership with the International Development Research Centre, today announced the names of the three teams of Canadian scientists who will collaborate with Latin American and Caribbean researchers to study the Zika virus.

The leaders of the three research teams include:

• Dr. Tom Hobman, from the University of Alberta. He and his team will study how the Zika virus changes host cells during infection, with the goal of developing anti-viral therapies that can be used against the virus.
• Dr. Keith Pardee, from the University of Toronto. He and his team will test a new, low-cost tool to rapidly detect the presence of Zika virus in patients’ bodily fluids. The new diagnostic tool is designed to be used in remote, under-resourced locations and will be field tested in Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia. Current tests to diagnose Zika virus are time consuming and prone to false positives due to the possibility of a patient’s prior infection with other flaviviruses such as dengue.
• Dr. Beate Sander, from Public Health Ontario. She and her team will conduct field studies in Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador to better understand how the virus is spread from mosquitoes to humans, predict which areas in the region are most at risk and use computer simulations to assess the most effective intervention methods, including mosquito control measures and vaccine development.

“The health research community is only beginning to come to grips with this dangerous pathogen. These three research teams have the potential to shed new light on the Zika virus and save lives,” says Dr. Marc Ouellette, the Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Infection and Immunity. “They may come up with faster ways to test for infection, finding the best methods to stop the mosquitoes that spread the virus and develop therapies that are effective against Zika.”

To date, there have been 481 cases of Zika virus detected in Canada, most of which have been travel related. However, the virus can also be transmitted from mother to fetus and sexually transmitted. There are currently no cures for Zika virus infections or vaccines available against the virus.

Additionally, Zika is linked to severe birth defects, like microcephaly. Moreover, it may cause neurological disorders including Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its nervous system. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends that pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy avoid travel to countries or areas in the United States, like Florida, with reported mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Together, the international teams will create new knowledge to help develop diagnostics for Zika virus infection, understand the pathology caused by the virus, and ultimately prevent its transmission and morbidity.