Zika: Fighting a global health emergency
08/07/2016 // News // Text: Tobias Moorstedt

QIAGEN has a proven track record of providing advanced Sample to Insight solutions to help tackle global health emergencies, such as the Zika virus. This outbreak is already overshadowing the Summer Olympics in Brazil. 

Dr. Maya Brohmann, Director Implementation & Support, is an expert on Brazil. She even learned to speak Portuguese to communicate better with the Brazilian OEM partner Bio-Manguinhos. Maya knows from experience how dangerous the favelas can be, but when that company’s MDx R&D Head told her about a new health scare in November 2015, linked to standing water in the favelas, she sensed a very different kind of danger.

Bio-Manguinhos, a leading provider of vaccines and diagnostics to Brazil’s Ministry of Health, is at the forefront of efforts to understand what the new threat is about and develop the tools laboratories require to detect this threat. In this respect, Maya had every reason to be confident that QIAGEN’s rapid response experience and extensive toolbox in molecular diagnostics would prove helpful to tackle the growing problem.

“What motivates me most in this situation is that I can contribute to tackling the Zika outbreak.”
Dr. Maya Brohmann, Director Implementation & Support, QIAGEN

For example, during a smaller Zika epidemic on the Yap Islands of Micronesia in 2007, QIAGEN’s QuantiTect Probe RT-PCR Kit and QIAamp® Viral RNA Mini Kit were used to identify the virus in patient samples. Almost a decade later, QIAGEN’s products still play a key role in responding to the latest outbreak in the Americas and are an integral part of the test protocol for detection of the Zika virus published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which serves as a blueprint for many labs worldwide.

The Zika story began nearly 70 years ago in an equatorial forest in Uganda where leopards and snakes abounded and crocodiles filled the malarial swamps. In this hostile environment generations of entomologists have set up camp to bait and trap mosquitoes, as over 70 species breed in the trees. Back in 1947, the Scottish virologist Alexander Haddow named a virus identified in a sentinel rhesus monkey after that forest: Zika. Initially little attention was paid to this flavivirus, which is primarily transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The Flavivirus genus also includes the yellow fever, dengue and West Nile viruses. Zika was always thought to be a much milder form of its killer cousins, as 80% of Zika infections are asymptomatic, and the symptoms themselves – pinkish rash, bloodshot eyes, fever, muscle and joint pains – are relatively mild. Brazil changed all that.

Hike in microcephaly cases

In August 2015 medics in the maternity wards of Recife in northeast Brazil noticed a hike in babies born with microcephaly, an alarming condition whose most striking symptom is an abnormally small head. In 2014 Brazil had 160 cases of microcephaly; 3,800 had been reported by October 2015. Just what was going on?

Months of circumstantial evidence collected by an international team of neurologists and epidemiologists revealed that many mothers of microcephalic babies had been infected with the Zika virus. Microcephaly had never been linked to Zika infections in other countries, but developments in Brazil were very different. In February 2016 the WHO declared an international public health emergency; in April health officials from the CDC confirmed Zika as the cause of this birth defect. An analysis of microcephalic babies in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco and published in the British Medical Journal in April pointed to “extremely severe” brain damage. Dr. Anne Schuchat, a CDC Deputy Director: “This virus is scarier than we thought.” Nobody really knows how the virus reached Brazil; a single infected passenger arriving by plane might have transmitted it. Now it has spread to over 30 countries of the Americas and the Caribbean.

"Diagnostic testing is a key component of virtually any outbreak response plan, especially if no vaccination or treatment is available. Here, rapid response is particularly important, as it can frequently help to contain an outbreak by interrupting the chain of infection."
Veronique Baron-Wunderle, Senior Director Business & Medical Lead for Infectious Diseases, QIAGEN

Rapid response is key

Zika is the latest in a long line of global health threats where QIAGEN has been critically involved. The first assay for SARS and the leading offerings for the swine and bird flu all came from QIAGEN. Likewise, QIAGEN’s technologies played a pivotal role in responding to the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. “We have a long history of collaborating with healthcare authorities such as the CDC, the WHO or various national ministries of health,” explains Veronique Baron-Wunderle, QIAGEN’s Senior Director Business & Medical Lead for Infectious Diseases. "Diagnostic testing is a key component of virtually any outbreak response plan, especially if no vaccination or treatment is available. Here, rapid response is particularly important, as it can frequently help to contain an outbreak by interrupting the chain of infection.”

These past experiences also guide the current Zika strategy, explains Veronique. In early 2016, the Molecular Diagnostics Business Area formed a dedicated task force to keep a close eye on the outbreak, share regional action plans and monitor any changes in the management of Zika in different countries. “Thanks to the collaboration with our commercial teams, we can assess the needs of our customers in real time and identify potential business opportunities,” she says. 

This approach has proven to be especially successful in the Americas. “Our teams generated business for our automated workflow and sample preparation solutions,” says Veronique. “At the same time, we greatly benefit from the ongoing knowledge exchange across the regions, especially with APAC and EMEA.”

QIAGEN – the gold standard 

In Brazil the long relationship with Bio-Manguinhos has created a trustful climate. Over the course of this year, Bio-Manguinhos plans to offer a triplex test for Zika, dengue and chikungunya that is capable of distinguishing between those three flaviviruses, which all cause very similar symptoms. “What motivates me most in this situation is that I can contribute to tackling the Zika outbreak,” Maya says. “It’s a combination of my desire to help, a childhood spent in South America, my professional interest in infectious diseases, and my work at QIAGEN.” 

A strong track record and long-standing experience in tackling infectious disease outbreaks has made QIAGEN the partner of choice – not only for Bio-Manguinhos, but also for many other institutions and healthcare authorities worldwide. “QIAGEN is definitely the gold standard,” Veronique says. “We’re always the first port of call.” With the risk of pandemic outbreaks rising, QIAGEN will continue to play a key role worldwide. 

But back to Brazil, a country Maya knows like the back of her hand. What advice does she give to visitors with tickets for the Rio Olympics? “Stay away from the favelas! They were unsafe for tourists even before Zika mosquitoes started breeding in the open canisters of drinking water in those slums. And a mosquito repellent is a must – I’ll be using one for the first time on my next trip to Brazil.”


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