The Zika virus has put the pharma world into a tizzy. Believed to have been born in the Zika forest of Uganda, the origin of the virus was first established in 1936. In 1947, scientists were researching on the serum of a rhesus macaque that was running a fever. The macaque was caged in the Zika forest, near the Uganda/East African Virus Research Institute, in Entebbe. They isolated a tramissible agent from its serum that was first described as the Zika virus in 1952. Two years later, in 1954, the same virus was isolated from a human in Nigeria.
Zika was a virus that initially thrived in monkeys. This arbovirus joined the race of flaviviruses such as yellow fever and dengue to thrive in a mosquito–human–mosquito cycle, after leaving the enzootic mosquito-monkey-mosquito cycle. Like dengue, Zika is transmitted by mosquitoes active in the daytime.
First recorded transmission in the US
In 2009, biologist Brian Foy from Colorado State University returned from a visit to Senegal where he went to study mosquitoes. It is believed that he contracted the Zika virus there and sexually transmitted it to his wife. She started showing symptoms of the viral infection, with extreme sensitivity to light. Foy is recorded as the first person to pass on this insect borne virus to another human through sexual contact.
In 2015, the Zika virus RNA was detected in the amniotic fluid of two fetuses. This was an important finding for the medical fraternity where a virus breached the placenta to cause a mother-to-child infection. This led to studies on linking Zika and microcephaly in newborns.
Size of Zika Virus
The Zika virus is estimated to be 30 to 45 mμ in diameter. It may be preserved for up to six months in 50 per cent glycerol, and up to 30 months after drying up. It is susceptible to anaesthetic ether and has a thermal death point at 58°C maintained for 30 minutes.
Patenting Cure for Zika
The Rockfeller Foundation, which established the Uganda/East African Virus Research Institute, in Entebbe, was the first patentee of a Zika virus vaccine. Merck and Novartis are actively researching this viral strain, having filed for patents in 2006 and 2008 respectively. Once the WHO declares a public health emergency on Zika, these two companies are likely to make huge profits with their vaccines and drug programs. In fact, the USPTO records Merck as the patent owner of a Zika cure, which means that Merck holds the whole interest of patent US 8679472 invented by others.
Testing for Zika
Zika is considered a mild disease with one in five people developing symptoms and no fatalities reported. Its potential as a viral agent is still unknown. With research underway, there is much left to be learnt of the Zika virus. As of now, a serum or tissue sample from the first week of infection is being sent to advanced laboratories to check for a Zika strain.
Since Zika is similar to dengue and yellow fever, there is a possibility that it may cross-react with antibodies used for those viruses. While tourism to Zika affected places is likely to hit turbulence, the pharmaceutical industry is storming towards finding a winner in the Zika vaccine race.