U.S., Brazil researchers join forces to battle Zika virus

BRASILIA, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Top U.S. and Brazilian medical experts met on Thursday to launch a research partnership to find a vaccine against the Zika virus that has spread rapidly through the Americas since it first appeared in the hemisphere last year.

Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Castro said the experts would also pool resources and knowledge to develop better methods to test people for Zika and ways to eradicate the mosquito that spreads the virus linked to severe birth defects.

Brazil is scrambling to contain the Zika outbreak that threatens attendance at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August. It has advised pregnant women to stay at home.

Researchers from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with experts from the Food and Drug Administration and the Health and Human Services department met with counterparts from Brazil’s leading biomedical research centers.

Among the issues they face is the need to agree on the evidence that Zika is causing the hundreds of confirmed cases in Brazil of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly, and with other neurological diseases.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which declared the Zika outbreak a global public health emergency on Feb. 1, said last week that a stronger view of Zika’s link to microcephaly could become clearer within weeks.

While that relation has not been proven scientifically Brazilian authorities coping with an unprecedented number of babies with microcephaly say they are sure Zika is the cause, because most cases of microcephaly have occurred in the poorer northeast of Brazil where the Zika outbreak has hit hardest.

“We have no doubt that the epidemic of microcephaly that we are seeing in Brazil is caused by the Zika virus outbreak,” Castro told reporters on the sidelines of Thursday’s meeting.

Brazil’s Health Ministry announced on Wednesday that it was considering most of the 508 confirmed cases of microcephaly in the country to be linked to the Zika outbreak.

Castro said Brazil was making the reporting of all Zika cases mandatory, a step that had not been taken before due to the lack of kits to test for Zika.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan will visit Brazil next week to meet health officials in Brasilia and visit mothers with babies suffering from microcephaly in the northeastern city of Recife, at the epicenter of the epidemic in Brazil, Castro said.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Tom Brown