New test distinguishes Zika from similar viral infections

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Campus researchers and Humabs BioMed, a private antibody therapeutics biotechnology company, have created a new test that helps differentiate Zika virus infections from infections of similar viruses.

“It is very exciting to finally have a robust, high-throughput assay with such high sensitivity and specificity to distinguish Zika virus infections in dengue-endemic countries,” said Eva Harris, co-author of the study and campus public health professor.

Zika virus is a mosquito-borne flavivirus strongly linked to congenital birth defects, and is spread either through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito or sexual transmission.

Arthur Reingold, professor in the campus department of public health, said some of the viruses this test will help distinguish from the Zika virus include chikungunya and dengue.

Reingold said the test will be especially helpful with diagnosing pregnant women and providing them with “options” if they are diagnosed with Zika or other similar viruses.

“It’s not going to help how we treat patients in their acute illness, but it may be helpful in the concept of giving types of advice and guidance one can give to a pregnant woman or someone who wants to know if it’s safe to resume sexual activity,” Reingold said.

This antibody-based assay was formed in the “urgent need” for a specific serological assay to differentiate Zika from other flaviviruses. The assay has high specificity and sensitivity in detecting the Zika virus, in both recent and past infections.

“The big advantage (with this assay is) being able to distinguish at an antibody level who has what,” Harris said.

According to Harris, many pre-existing assays that detect the Zika virus were developing using “a mess of samples,” whereas the development of the new assay followed samples of assessed, well-documented Zika patients over time.

Harris’ samples were taken from a 14-year study that held viral infection histories of a number of children, such as when they had contracted dengue.

Since prior dengue infections can cross-react and confuse many of the Zika antibody based assays, having this knowledge of the patients’ samples aided researchers in distinguishing and evading this cross-reactivity, according to a campus press release.

The assay has so far been put into effect in five countries Nicaragua, Brazil, Italy, United Kingdom and Switzerland where it was tested on samples from patients and travelers from concentrated areas where the Zika virus and other flaviviruses are concentrated.

The assay is currently in the process of being licensed and is anticipated to be low cost and used by different groups of people around the world, Harris said. She added that improvements are still being made, including efforts to make the assay “more accessible and simple.”

Contact Robin Hyun at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @robinnhyun.