The UK Government has launched ‘Rapid Response’ to accelerate research aimed at tackling the risk posed by the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus.

Initially, the government will allocate up to £1m from its Global Challenges Research Fund, which will be made available through the UK Medical Research Council (UK MRC) to researchers applying for grants to carry out studies on the virus.

With this fund, researchers will investigate the nature of the virus, its transmission and the potential links to neurological conditions including microcephaly.

The funds will be used to research epidemiological characteristics, such as vector transmission potential, geographical spread, interactions with other arboviruses, changing viral genotype, host susceptibility, and incubation period.

The Rapid Response initiative will also see the 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.

The researchers will also evaluate viral pathogenicity, association with and potential mechanistic links to neurodevelopment / microcephaly; as well as mechanisms of infection and host immune responses and potential therapeutics / vaccines.

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Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised Zika virus as a global emergency.

The virus is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus and its symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, itching, conjunctivitis or red eyes, headache, muscle pain and eye pain.

MRC chief executive Sir John Savill said: "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."

Recently, the UK MRC and the Foundation for Science and Technology of the state of Pernambuco (FAPERPE) have 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.

The deal follows a joint call for research applications under the UK Government’s Newton Fund.

Under this deal, researchers at the UK MRC Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow will be working with a team at the Research Centre Aggeu Magalhães at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Pernambuco, Brazil.

The project is aimed at studying 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.

"With this fund, researchers will investigate the nature of the virus, its transmission and the potential links to neurological conditions including microcephaly."

In a separate development, Indian firm Bharat Biotech has unveiled two vaccine candidates to protect humans against this virus.

The company claims that it is probably the first in the world to file for a global patent for Zika vaccine candidates, which it calls Zikavac.

The candidates include a recombinant vaccine and an inactivated vaccine, which has reached the stage of pre-clinical testing in animals.

Recently, French drugmaker Sanofi has launched a project to develop a vaccine against the Zika virus, which has already spread to 23 countries in Latin America.

Image: The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus. Photo: courtesy of the Medical Research Council.