Research into the link between Zika virus infection and neurological disease, an online data-sharing platform for images of newborn heads and improved diagnostic tests are among 26 new projects to receive funding through the Zika Rapid Response initiative.
The £3.2 million funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Newton Fund and the Wellcome Trust will help to answer some of the many unanswered questions about transmission of the Zika virus, which has been reported in 52 countries since January 2007.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders a public health emergency on 1 February 2016, after substantial new evidence supporting the association between Zika infection, and fetal abnormalities and neurological disorders including Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "The speed at which Zika moved from being a relatively obscure tropical disease to a global health emergency has taken us all by surprise, and illustrates just how vulnerable the world is to emerging infections. This research effort will begin to answer urgent questions about Zika, including establishing the links with microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and will kick-start the development of better diagnostic tools and vaccines to protect those most at risk from infection."
Professor Sir John Savill, the MRC's chief executive, said: "Two very important elements needed to come together in order to respond to the global health threat from the Zika virus – agility and capacity. Our Rapid Response Initiative allowed us to allocate funding to this global research challenge within a very short time frame, and valuable contributions from the Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund created the capacity to match the remarkably strong response we received from the research community. Working in partnership is vital if we are to successfully tackle the health risks posed by emerging infections such as the Zika virus."
The Zika Rapid Response Initiative was launched by the MRC in February, making up to £1m of funding available through the government's Global Challenges Research Fund. Further funding was contributed subsequently by the Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund, which aligns with additional support in Brazil provided by the São Paulo Research Foundation FAPESP.
Applicants were encouraged to work in conjunction with colleagues in Zika-affected countries, and funding will go towards a wide range of projects across several countries including Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Cape Verde, Kenya and Uganda.