As fears grow over the threat of Zika, people are wondering what,if anything, can be done to treat and prevent the spread of the virus. Though the symptoms of Zika fever are eased with painkillers and plenty of fluids, there’s currently no treatment available for the disease itself. As the epidemic evolves, more research is being done into possible antiviral treatments and preventative vaccinations. Though drug design and testing can be lengthy processes, many different companies and institutions around the globe are making an effort to find solutions to the Zika problem. So what treatments are in development, and are there other ways that the Zika virus can be combated?
IBM’s OpenZika project aims to find an antiviral treatment for infected people by identifying chemical compounds that can disable target proteins in the Zika virus, and therefore stop its replication and spread. Their approach is different to what most people would imagine drug research to be; it uses a computer tool called AutoDock VINA to model thousands of different compounds and test their effectiveness against models of viral proteins. This means that no expensive and time-consuming “wet lab” experiments involving actual viruses and chemicals are carried out. Though the structures of the chemical compounds are already in the system, the exact structures of Zika virus proteins have not yet been figured out. Instead, similar protein models from other related viruses are used. An interesting aspect of OpenZika is that the project is done through IBM’s World Community Grid, which means that anyone with access to a computer or Android device could contribute to the search for a Zika treatment by running their own virtual experiments.
Similar experiments have been carried out by the Australian biotech company Biotron, though these have been wet lab experiments that used actual Zika material and chemical compounds. From preliminary trials, they have found that two chemical compounds in their library have worked successfully against Zika proteins in test tube experiments. This is a promising find and a good starting point for developing effective antiviral treatments, but trials in living systems must be carried out in order to determine whether the compounds will fight Zika infections in humans.
Though many different companies are researching Zika vaccines, one company has a head start. In February, the India-based Bharat Biotech announced that it was developing two vaccinations that could potentially immunise people against the Zika virus before they are exposed to it. Though the epidemic was only declared last year, Bharat Biotech have been doing research into Zika vaccines for the past two years as it complimented their research into the related Dengue and Chikungunya viruses which are also spread by mosquitos.
The first potential vaccine is what is known as a recombinant vaccine, which consists of Zika virus DNA but not the actual virus itself. The DNA used would produce a Zika antigen, a molecule present on the virus particle. The second potential vaccine uses an inactivated form of the virus that is in-tact but unable to infect people or replicate itself. Both of these methods would hopefully stimulate the body’s immune system to build up its resistance to the Zika virus so that any future infections would not be harmful.
Though these developments sound promising, further testing is still needed to ensure that they would be effective and not have any adverse reactions in recipients. When these announcements were made in February Bharat Biotech stated that they would be moving the development forward with animal experiments, which would take roughly 5 months. Depending on the results of these tests, the vaccines would then have to be tested on humans before they could be distributed as an actual Zika treatment.
Outside of disease treatment and prevention, some companies are looking into methods of mosquito control to prevent the spread of Zika. One such company is Oxitec, who have genetically modified male mosquitos especially to combat the spread of disease. This strain are able to live and breed with the blood-sucking female mosquitoes as normal, but will pass on a faulty gene to their offspring which causes them to die prematurely. Trials have shown that mosquito numbers have dropped by 90% when introducing the males into a population, and their introduction into Eldorado, Brazil resulted in the number of Dengue fever cases dropping from 133 to 1 per year. As expected there are concerns over the ethics of killing off a species and the effects this could have on the rest of the ecosystem, but Oxitec is confident that the ecosystem will remain unaffected due to this specific mosquito being an invasive species with seemingly no other species depending on it.
Until a proper treatment or vaccine is found and released, the best way to combat Zika currently is to be cautious when travelling to infected areas. It is recommended that mosquito bites are avoided in the usual way by using mosquito repellent, wearing loose clothing, and avoiding stagnant water.