The most affected country is Brazil, where the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that the recent cluster of severe brain malformations in new-borns may be linked to the virus. While the risk of transmission of the Zika virus in the EU is low, there is currently no treatment or vaccine against the virus, and diagnostic tests for infections are not widely available.
The funding, which comes from the Horizon 2020 EU research and innovation funding programme, will go into projects that will first have to prove the link between the virus and severe brain malformations reported in newborn children. If proven, researchers could then move on to combatting the Zika virus, including developing diagnostics and testing potential treatments or vaccines.
Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: "This funding will enable urgently needed research on the emerging global threat of the Zika virus. This shows once again that we are ready to face new epidemics like Zika with fast and effective research."
Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, added: “A number of EU citizens have returned from the affected areas with the Zika virus. The Commission is carefully monitoring the situation and, as the summer approaches, is working closely together with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the WHO and Member States to put in place all necessary measures to ensure that the response to the virus is coherent and well-coordinated."
Celso Pansera, Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation of Brazil, said: "The partnership with the European Union in research on the virus Zika will be very important to help Brazilian researchers in combating epidemic diseases that affect our country. In addition, the initiative will stimulate research and technology on a global scale for the benefit of the population throughout the world. "
The funding will complement a number of other research initiatives currently funded under Horizon 2020 that can aid in the fight against Zika. One is a €40 million call for research on vaccine development for malaria and neglected infectious diseases, which includes the Zika virus. A further €10 million topic on research infrastructures for the control of vector-borne diseases could go a long way to combatting the mosquitos that spread Zika and a number of other prevalent diseases. Finally, the EU is co-funding research on the prevention of infectious diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean under the ERANET programme.
The Zika virus disease is a mosquito-borne disease similar to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile. Until recently, it wasn't believed to cause severe symptoms. However, the recent rapid spread of the virus has suggested a link with an upsurge in brain malformations in new-borns. Cases of Guillain–Barré syndrome, a form of paralysis, have also recently been reported in adults and it is believed that there may be a link with the virus.
This EU-funded research will examine the potential link between the Zika virus and the brain malformations in new-borns and other neurological complications observed across Latin America and French Polynesia. It will fund the development of diagnostics and the testing of potential treatments and vaccines. This research would help public health authorities prevent further spreading and reduce the risks to pregnant women.
A total of 41 countries over the past nine months have reported native cases of Zika virus infection. The countries are mainly in Latin America, where the virus had never previously been reported, with Brazil being the most affected country so far.
Some Zika cases have been imported to Europe in recent weeks and reports have circulated of sexually transmitted cases of the disease. The Commission has been working on preparedness and coordination of risk management together with Member States and with the support of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) since the outbreak began. The EU Health Security Committee, established under the Decision of the European Parliament and of the Council on serious cross border threats to health is coordinating the exchange of information and coordination of preparedness. ECDC has recommended that pregnant women and women who are planning to become pregnant should discuss travel plans to affected areas and evaluate the risk with their healthcare providers and consider postponing their travel. Nevertheless, according to the latest assessment by the ECDC, the risk in the EU for transmission of Zika virus infections is currently extremely low.