Scientists have sequenced a strain of the Zika virus that will be used as a World Health Organisation (WHO) reference strain to identify infection in the blood, thus making it easier to diagnose the disease.
While the reference material will undergo formal WHO review in October, the agency has given the go-ahead for the strain’s use given the urgent need of medical products to diagnose and treat Zika, researchers said.
“WHO’s go-ahead before its expert committee meeting in October reflects the urgent need for researchers and companies to access valid reference material to diagnose Zika virus infection,” said principal investigator Sally Baylis, senior scientist at Paul-Ehrlich-Institut in Germany.
“This will facilitate the development of sensitive, better performing tests to detect Zika in patients,” said Baylis.
Zika virus has been spreading across South and Central America since early 2015 and has now emerged in Florida, researchers said.
While most infections are mild and asymptomatic, the WHO declared the current Zika epidemic a public health emergency of international concern because of complications that may arise in newborns when pregnant mothers contract the infection.
Microcephaly and other central nervous system abnormalities have been detected in large numbers of foetuses and neonates since the epidemic struck Latin America.
Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, is also thought to be caused by Zika infection in a small number of adults, researchers said.
Reference standards from the WHO are used to harmonise assays for diagnostic testing, particularly in the case of acute infection, as well as assays that might be used to screen blood for transfusions, and to define regulatory requirements for test sensitivity where screening is implemented, said Baylis.
The research was published in the journal Genome Announcements.