Concerns about the spread of Zika virus and potential complications associated with infection may soon lead to new research and development opportunities for government contractors and grant recipients. Similar to developments after the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a need to better understand Zika’s characteristics and develop an effective countermeasure or vaccine has led both domestic and international public bodies and private industry to begin mobilizing resources in response to the virus. As a result, both new and existing contractual vehicles will likely be used to fund a wide array of activities, extending from epidemiological studies to the development of new diagnostics and countermeasures.
Similar to yellow fever, dengue, West Nile, and Japanese encephalitis viruses, Zika is a flavivirus that is generally transmitted through mosquitoes. Although Zika was first discovered in 1947, it has only recently been identified as a significant threat to public health based on a potential connection between Zika and microcephaly in newborns—a condition associated with incomplete brain development. Recent events have also provided additional evidence of a potential link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is a nervous system disorder that could affect Zika’s carriers.
Previously, the virus was understood to have relatively limited consequences, only causing mild, flu-like symptoms in one of five of its hosts. However, an outbreak of the virus in French Polynesia in 2013 and 2014 has now been associated with an increase in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome. In addition, an ongoing outbreak of the virus that began in Brazil last year has affected over one million individuals and been linked to both an increased incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome and a dramatic rise in cases of microcephaly. Zika RNA has been discovered in the amniotic fluid of women with affected fetuses in Brazil, and a recent report indicates that an affected newborn in Hawaii acquired Zika in the womb.