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The MRC has announced a ‘Rapid Response’ call for research application 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 through the Rapid Response mechanism 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; and Mechanisms of infection and host immune responses and potential therapeutics / vaccines.

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At the same time as the rapid response initiative, the UK MRC and the Foundation for Science and Technology of the state of Pernambuco (FACEPE) 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 Fundopens in New Window

Researchers at the UK MRC Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow will be workiFfang 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.

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.”

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.”

‘Rapid Responses’ aim to accelerate the speed at which essential funding can be allocated in emergency situations. The UK MRC will consider a situation as an emergency if it is unforeseen and presents a serious and immediate risk to human health. Under these exceptional circumstances, applications for funding are directly assessed by a scientific panel and are not subject to usual peer review. All proposals must be clear in why the funding is needed now and cannot wait until the next round of core funding. The size and number of grants awarded will depend on the type and quality of applications received.

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