Bigger than Ebola? Zika virus genome mapped amid new warning

Mapping the genome could help develop a vaccine for the virus, according to Brazilian scientists. © Paulo Whitaker
Scientists claim they have managed to sequence the Zika genome, while the head of the world's second-largest private funder of medical research warns the virus is a larger threat than Ebola.

Saturday’s announcement in Brazil is said to be more evidence of its link to cases of microcephaly in affected countries - and a step toward developing a vaccine.

By understanding how Zika behaves in the human body and how it can be combated through tests and vaccines, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) researcher Renato Santana said on TV Brasil, “What we know now may help us understand why the virus has chosen children's brain cells over those of adults - the pregnant women.”

Jeremy Farrar, a former Professor of Tropical Medicine at Oxford University where the Zika virus "fighting" GM mosquitoes are produced, is now director of the Wellcome Trust, which announced this month it was sharing Zika virus data with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

He said that the “symptomless” Zika poses a greater threat than the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and 2015 which killed 11,000 people: “It is a silent infection in a group of highly vulnerable individuals – pregnant women – that is associated with a horrible outcome for their babies.”

The Zika virus has long been suspected of causing microcephaly in newborn babies, but until now, scientists were theorizing the connection.

Microcephaly is a rare condition where newborn babies have abnormally small heads and brains, causing impaired cognitive development.

About 4,000 infants in Brazil have been born with microcephaly since October, while in 2014 there were fewer than 150 cases.

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“The real problem is that trying to develop a vaccine that would have to be tested on pregnant women is a practical and ethical nightmare,” said Mike Turner, former Professor of Parasitology at University of College and member of the Wellcome Trust.

The virus, which is transferred primarily through mosquitoes, has spread from Latin America to a number of US states, including Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas.