Wanted: A Live Zika Virus Sample to Make Test Kits in India

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NEW DELHI/SINGAPORE: Scientists in Asia are racing to put together detection kits for the Zika virus, with China on Thursday confirming its first case, but the researchers are challenged by the lack of a crucial element – a live sample of the virus.

Zika, suspected of causing brain defects in more than 4,000 newborns in Brazil after spreading through much of the Americas, is a particular worry in South and Southeast Asia, where mosquito-borne tropical diseases such as dengue fever are a constant threat.

India is working on diagnostic kits for the virus, as there is no testing kit commercially available, but the lack of a live virus sample is hindering its efforts.

A strain from 1950 was found dead and not suitable for research, said Soumya Swaminathan, director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which spearheads biomedical research.

“We want it for our research,” Swaminathan said, referring to live samples of the virus. “In a big country like India, we need it.”

India has written to international agencies, the World Health Organisation among them, seeking a sample of live Zika virus, the council says.

“If we get it, we can develop a kit and testing procedures within a month,” said a council official, who declined to be identified because of lack of authorisation to speak to the media.

In the affluent city state of Singapore, scientists are working on a diagnostic kit to simultaneously detect Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses, which are transmitted by the same type of mosquitoes and cause similar symptoms.

Singapore, which is just north of the equator, has suffered a spike in cases of dengue fever this year, and has taken precautions against a Zika outbreak.

“Every country and major city needs to be prepared,” said Sebastian Maurer-Stroh, director of the infectious diseases programme at the Bioinformatics Institute of A*Star, Singapore’s public sector research agency.

The new kit developed by Maurer-Stroh’s team would save two thirds of the cost and time needed to test for the three viruses individually, and can be run on standard hospital equipment.

The new kit is expected to be distributed to hospitals by the end of March, where it will undergo final testing on real viruses, if Zika eventually hits the shores of Singapore.

“It is a challenge to get the information as well as access to all samples and sequences, and that’s a challenge that everyone in the world faces,” said Maurer-Stroh.

© Thomson Reuters 2016