A Baltimore-based research consortium is forming a task force of leading scientists from around the world, including renowned AIDS researcher Dr. Robert Gallo, to better understand the Zika virus and quickly develop a vaccine.
The task force is being convened by the Global Virus Network, a group of 35 scientific research centers across the globe that work to prevent the spread of deadly viruses. Gallo, one of the scientists who helped discover the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, started the network in 2011.
While the mosquito-born Zika virus has been known for decades, a new outbreak has hit nearly three dozen countries and brought new urgency to stopping its spread. The virus, declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization, is suspected of causing a devastating brain disorder known as microcephaly, in which brain development is incomplete in babies born to infected women.
The task force aims to connect researchers who are working on Zika or similar diseases. They will create a database or repository where scientists can go to find the latest research.
"There are a lot of different efforts going on around the world on this Zika effort, and the role that we can play that maybe isn't being taken on by other groups is international coordination and exchange of information," said Dr. Scott Weaver, chair of the new task force and scientific director of the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas.
"There is not really an effort to coordinate basic science across the world and help people find the right experts they need."
The Zika virus is transmitted to humans primarily through the Aedes species of mosquito, which also is spreading chikungunya and dengue viruses.
The similarity of the diseases could help those studying Zika but also could pose complications, the scientists said.
A vaccine already exists for dengue, for instance, that scientists can use as a blueprint while learning more about Zika. But it can also be hard to distinguish between mosquito-born viruses in the blood days after the initial infection.
Maryland health officials announced last week the state's first confirmed case of Zika and said they expect more. The unidentified Maryland resident recently returned from a Central American country and has recovered.
Cases also have been found in neighboring jurisdictions, including Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia, and local health authorities have begun ramping up testing. Fifty-two cases have been reported nationally in those who have traveled abroad.
Maryland has sent 17 samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, one case was positive and two tested negative, and the rest have not been returned, state officials said. The state plans to soon begin testing for the virus in its own lab and provide weekly counts.
The symptoms are usually relatively mild and include fever, muscle and joint pain, and headache. Officials in several Latin American countries have noted increases in the rare Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis, and in babies born with microcephaly. A link to Zika is suspected in both.
Gallo said collaborations among scientists can help to answer many mysteries regarding the Zika virus. Did climate change contribute to the recent outbreak? Was there a virus mutation? Are infected mosquitoes coming out of deforested areas?
"There are so many unanswered questions so far," said Gallo, who also is director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "It is a big research problem right now."
Johns Hopkins professor Dr. Diane Griffin specializes in mosquito-born diseases and the link to encephalomyelitis, or inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. The professor in the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will soon begin to study the Zika virus and hopes she can benefit from the expertise of others on the task force.
"The task force can help put people together who have different areas of expertise and hopefully make for more rapid progress," Griffin said.
Possible Zika vaccines are at least 18 months away from large-scale trials, the World Health Organization said last week. The agency advised pregnant women to consider delaying travel to areas where the mosquito-borne virus has been diagnosed.
Health officials also are monitoring the spread of Zika at the federal level and helping to fund research into a vaccine. President Barack Obama has asked for $1.8 billion in emergency funding from Congress for the domestic and international response.
Members of the newly formed Zika task force also hope their united front could help secure funding.
"We have enough scientific experience around the world in basically every virus that can cause disease in man," said Dr. Jose Esparza, president of the Global Virus Network. "Let's use this expertise not only to respond to an epidemic but to prevent an epidemic."