31 March 2016

Research Funders Join Forces to Tackle Zika Virus With £3.2m

The MRC, the Newton Fund and the Wellcome Trust have joined forces to tackle the global threat posed by the Zika virus.

Following the Zika Rapid Response Initiative launched by the MRC in February, which saw £1m of funding made available through the Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, an additional £1m and up to £2m was contributed by the Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund respectively, totalling up to £4m worth of funding.  This was further aligned with additional support in Brazil provided by the São Paulo Research Foundation FAPESP.

The MRC-led Rapid Response received a total of 103 proposals and funding was awarded to 26 high quality projects with a combined value of £3.2m.

To support the rapid allocation of funding, proposals were not subject to the usual external peer-review. Instead, each submission was carefully assessed directly at a specially convened panel meeting of over 20 international leading scientists whose areas of expertise spanned the breadth of the initiative.

The successful projects were deemed able to provide novel, critical and timely insights into the nature of the virus and/or potential avenues for its management or prevention.

Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders a health emergency on 1 February, substantial new clinical and epidemiological research has strengthened the association between Zika infection and the occurrence of fetal malformations and neurological disorders.

In addition, the geographical distribution of the disease is now wider. There are currently 52 countries which have reported local transmission of the Zika virus.

Applicants were encouraged to work in conjunction with colleagues in affected countries and the successful funding will go towards a wide range of projects across several countries including Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Cape Verde, Kenya and Uganda.

Specific awards include: the development of an online data-sharing platform for images of fetal and newborn heads; improved diagnosis for Zika virus infection through a shared laboratory partnership; and further investigation of the link between Zika virus infection and neurological disease.

Professor Sir John Savill, the MRC’s chief executive said:

 “Two very important elements needed to come together in order to respond to the global health threat from the Zika virus – agility and capacity. Our Rapid Response Initiative allowed us to allocate funding to this global research challenge within a very short time frame, and valuable contributions from the Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund created the capacity to match the remarkably strong response we received from the research community. Working in partnership is vital if we are to successfully tackle the health risks posed by emerging infections such as the Zika virus”.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said:

“This government’s decision to invest in science and innovation and protect science spending means we are able to react to emerging global threats like the Zika virus and allow the world class scientists we have here in the UK to conduct ground breaking and potentially life-saving research. By increasing this funding, and with the support of the Wellcome Trust, more of this vital work can now get started.”