Zika virus: Precious samples sought from Brazil by U.S., Europe
'Waiting is always risky during an emergency,' WHO expert says
The lack of data is forcing laboratories in the United States and Europe to work with samples from previous outbreaks, and is frustrating efforts to develop diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines. Scientists tell The Associated Press that having so little to work with is hampering their ability to track the virus' evolution.
"It's a very delicate issue, this sharing of samples. Lawyers have to be involved," said Dr. Marcos Espinal, director of communicable diseases in the World Health Organization's regional office in Washington.
"There is no way this should not be solved in the foreseeable future," he said. "Waiting is always risky during an emergency."
"Until the law is implemented, we're legally prohibited from sending samples abroad," said Paulo Gadelha, president of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil's premier state-run research institute for tropical diseases. "Even if we wanted to send this material abroad, we can't because it's considered a crime."
Given the drought of Brazilian samples, public health officials across the world are falling back on older viruses — or discreetly taking them from private patients.
In England, researchers are using samples drawn from Micronesia, the site of an outbreak in 2007. The French are using samples from Polynesia and Martinique. In Spain, scientists have a Ugandan strain of Zika supplied by the United States. Even Portugal, Brazil's former colonial master, doesn't have the Brazilian strain; the National Health Institute in Lisbon said its tests relied on a U.S. sample from the 1980s, among others.
Given the complexity of unanswered questions on #Zika & assoc. disease, our goal is to encourage all researchers to share their data ASAP— @WHO
"It's almost impossible to get samples from the country," Schmidt-Chanasit told AP, referring to Brazil. "It's not going via official government channels. Our source is simply the rich people who want a diagnosis."
Behind-the-scenes, it was another story.
"WHO has gotten zero from them, no clinical or lab findings," one of the officials said.
Ben Neuman, a virologist at Reading University in England, said thousands of samples — or hundreds at a minimum — were needed to track the virus and determine how it's changing. "Science only works when we share," he said.
"This isn't a unilateral issue; it's a global problem," he said.
Lawrence Gostin, director of WHO's Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University, said there are no rules that force governments to hand over viruses, tissue samples or other information.
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