World's top scientists pledge to share all findings to fight Zika

LONDON (Reuters) - Thirty of the world’s leading scientific research institutions, journals and funders have pledged to share for free all data and expertise on Zika to speed up the fight against an outbreak of the viral disease spreading across the Americas.

A health technician analyzes a blood sample from a patient bitten by a mosquito at the National Institute of Health in Lima, Peru, February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

“The arguments for sharing data and the consequences of not doing so (have been) ... thrown into stark relief by the Ebola and Zika outbreaks,” said a statement issued by signatories from around the world.

Specialists welcomed the initiative, saying it showed how the global health community had learned crucial lessons from West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 11,300 people and saw scientists scrambling to conduct research to help in the development of potential treatments and vaccines.

Zika, a viral disease carried by mosquitoes, is causing international alarm as an outbreak in Brazil has now spread through much of the Americas.

“In the context of a public health emergency of international concern, there is an imperative on all parties to make any information available that might have value in combating the crisis,” the signatories wrote.

Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether it may cause birth defects or other neurological problems.

Brazil is investigating a potential link between Zika infections and some 4,000 suspected cases in newborn babies of microcephaly, a condition in which an abnormally small head size can result in developmental problems.

Medical and scientific research teams around the world have stepped up efforts to find out more about the disease, including how vaccines or treatments might be developed to fight it.

Mark Woolhouse, a University of Edinburgh professor of infectious diseases, said the open sharing of data commitment was “one of the most welcome developments” he’d seen in decades.

“If acted upon, this declaration will save lives,” he said.

Signatories to Wednesday’s agreement to share the fruits of that research included the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization (WHO), France’s Institut Pasteur, the UK Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust global health charity.

Scientific journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Science and The Lancet, pledged to

“make all content concerning the Zika virus free to access”.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a signatory of the statement, said research is an essential part of the response to any global health emergency.

“This is particularly true for Zika, where so much is still unknown about the virus, how it is spread and the possible link with microcephaly,” he said.

Trudie Lang, a professor and director of the Global Health Network at Britain’s Oxford University, said that if data is shared more, “questions can be answered faster”.

“This agreement is a very important step...and it is excellent to see the lessons we learnt from Ebola being put into place,” she said.

Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich