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The Medical Research Council announces ‘rapid response’ to fast track research applications into Zika virus

The Medical Research Council has announced a ‘Rapid Response’1 call for research applications aimed at tackling the risk posed by the Zika virus.

Initially, up to £1 million from the Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund will be made available to researchers applying for grants to investigate the nature of the virus, its transmission and the potential links to neurological conditions including microcephaly.

Possible avenues of research to be funded by this initiative could include:

  • Epidemiological characteristics, e.g. vector transmission potential, geographical spread, interactions with other arboviruses, changing viral genotype, host susceptibility, incubation period, etc.;
  • Development of more specific rapid diagnostic tests for Zika virus that can reduce misdiagnosis that may occur due to the presence of dengue or other viruses in a test sample;
  • Viral pathogenicity, association with and potential mechanistic links to neurodevelopment / microcephaly;
  • Mechanisms of infection and host immune responses and potential therapeutics / vaccines.

Professor Sir John Savill, the MRC’s chief executive said: “It’s critical that we find out more about the Zika virus as soon as possible, so we are allocating funding to help researchers answer some of the most pressing questions about the disease. We need to be able to develop treatments and vaccines but first we need answers to vital questions about the nature of this virus – such as if and how it is changing, how to control the spread of the disease, and how to both diagnose and prevent infection.

“The UK has a wealth of excellent scientists working in virus research and in the fields of genetics, immunology, epidemiology and mosquito vectors.

“Zika is unlikely to be a serious public health problem in the UK, because the virus is spread by tropical mosquitos, but it’s hugely important that we use our home-grown expertise to help tackle health problems of significant global impact.”

At the Spending Review the Government confirmed its plan to protect the science and research budget in real terms through this Parliament, and announced a £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund to keep the UK at the forefront of research into issues of global importance.

Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “The spread of the Zika virus to a growing number of countries in Central and South America has now been recognised as a global emergency by the WHO. Zika needs to be fought on a number of fronts, and the UK’s world-class scientists have an important role to play. Thanks to the Government’s decision to protect the science budget and establish a new Global Challenges Research Fund, UK scientists can immediately start tackling this problem.”

At the same time as the rapid response initiative, the UK MRC and the Foundation for Science and Technology of the state of Pernambuco (FAPERPE) have recently agreed to jointly fund a research proposal to investigate the viral features and host responses to Zika virus with a view to designing new preventative strategies. This agreement follows a joint call for research applications under the UK Government’s Newton Fund.

Researchers at the UK MRC Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow will be working with a team at the Research Center Aggeu Magalhães at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Pernambuco, Brazil. The joint award is around £300,000 in total. The main objective of the project is to study the presence and epidemiology of the Zika virus in Brazil and to understand how the immune system of people infected with the virus responds to the infection. Genetic techniques will be used to support diagnostics and vaccine development studies as well as helping to understand the biology of the Zika virus during infection.