Obama, Rousseff share Zika concerns

A health municipal employee fumigating in Salvador, Bahía, Brazil on Jan 29, 2016.
A health municipal employee fumigating in Salvador, Bahía, Brazil on Jan 29, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Brazil and the United States agreed Friday (Jan 29) to launch a high-level bilateral group to develop a vaccine against the Zika virus that has spread rapidly across the Americas and been linked to microcephaly.

President Dilma Rousseff and her US counterpart Barack Obama discussed their "shared concerns" about the virus' progress, the White House said.

"The leaders agreed on the importance of collaborative efforts to deepen our knowledge, advance research and accelerate work to develop better vaccines and other technologies to control the virus."

It said the pair also "agreed to continue to prioritise building national, regional and global capacity to combat infectious disease threats more broadly."

 
 

Rousseff's office said the bilateral group would "develop a partnership in the production of vaccines and therapeutics." It will be based on an existing cooperation agreement between Brazil's Butantan Institute of biomedical research and the US National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine against dengue.

No matter how fast they are able to act, scientists have warned that it could take years for a Zika virus to become commercially available.

The tropical virus is blamed for causing brain damage in babies as it sweeps through Latin America, and Rousseff, whose government is deploying 220,000 soldiers to help eradicate the mosquitoes that transmit it, has likened the outbreak to a battle.

Since Zika, which originated in Africa, was detected in Latin America last year, there has been a surge in babies born with microcephaly, or abnormally small heads.

Brazil, the hardest hit, sounded the alarm in October, when a rash of microcephaly cases emerged in the northeast.

Since then, there have been 270 confirmed cases of microcephaly and 3,448 suspected cases, up from 147 in 2014.

The otherwise mild Zika virus is also suspected of causing a rare neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome in some patients, in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing weakness and sometimes paralysis.

Most patients recover, but the syndrome is sometimes deadly.