After criticism, Brazil sending Zika samples to U.S.
London — Brazilian officials say they’re sending a set of samples related to the Zika outbreak to the United States, a move which follows complaints that the country was hoarding disease data and biological material.
The announcement came hours after The Associated Press revealed that international health officials were frustrated at Brazil’s refusal to share enough viral samples and other information to answer the most worrying question about the outbreak: Whether the disease is truly causing a spike in babies born with abnormally small heads.
U.S. and U.N. officials told AP that Brazil probably shared fewer than 20 samples when experts say hundreds or thousands of samples are needed to track the virus’ evolution and develop accurate diagnostics and effective drugs and vaccines. Many countries’ national laboratories are relying on older strains from outbreaks in the Pacific and Africa, the AP found.
After the story’s publication, the World Health Organization sent out a flurry of messages acknowledging that existing data-sharing mechanisms were deficient.
“Given the complexity of unanswered questions on Zika & (associated) disease, our goal is to encourage all researchers to share their data ASAP,” the WHO said in a message posted to Twitter. “Rapid data sharing is critical during an unfolding health emergency,” it said.
In a statement posted to its website on Thursday, Brazil’s health ministry said that two-thirds of the material gathered during recent field work with an American team would be shipped to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This measure has been submitted to the National Committee of Ethics in Research which approved the project in full,” the statement said.
Still, a senior WHO doctor dismissed the importance of virus sharing earlier this week. When asked about the importance of sharing samples, Dr. Sylvie Briand said obtaining samples wasn’t critical because the mosquito-borne virus had not mutated.
Zika was discovered in a Ugandan forest in 1947; until last year, the virus had never caused serious disease. It has now spread to more than 20 countries.
The news that Brazil was not sharing many virus samples came as a surprise to many senior scientists, including officials at WHO and elsewhere. Dr. David Heymann, chair of WHO’s Zika emergency committee, said that virus-sharing was not discussed during the hours-long crisis meeting on Monday.
“Virus-sharing was not mentioned as an issue of concern,” he said. Heymann said the committee recommended WHO convene other groups to determine what types of samples needed to be shared but was unsure what progress has been made.
When asked about sample sharing this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the AP: “I don’t think it’s an issue.”
Many scientists say having access to current samples is critical to figuring out whether it is mutating into a more transmissible or dangerous form. With so many unknowns about Zika, researchers are keen to sequence the virus to see if it has evolved into a form capable of causing microcephaly, the feared birth defects seen so far in babies born in Brazil and French Polynesia after Zika’s arrival.
“The work needs to be done and the quicker it’s done, the better,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Britain’s Reading University.
“We basically can’t follow Zika without data,” he said. “Not sharing is ridiculous, frankly.”