Who Cares About Containing the Zika Virus?

Zika is spreading panic through Latin America and has jumped its borders, making its way to U.S. territories. This prompted the WHO to warn the world that the virus is expected to “spread to across nearly all of the Americas.” Zika is a vector-borne virus; no vaccine exists, there is no treatment protocol and no cure. Those that contract the disease can do little but suffer through the symptoms, which include fever, headache, and joint pain.

Those symptoms may seem relatively mild, especially when compared to diseases like Ebola. But Zika is suspected of causing birth defects like microcephaly, which can cause expectant mothers to miscarry and babies to die at birth. Babies that survive are typically extremely disabled. Additionally, Zika can also trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults. Guillain-Barre is a rare auto-immune disease that can cause paralysis. Finally, it could be transmitted sexually by men.

Scary stuff, indeed, but there hasn’t been as much funding movement as expected here.

As we've reported, Paul Allen and his Vulcan Inc.are a notable exception, pitching in over $2 million to combat the spread of the virus. About $1.5 million of those funds are being used by the American Red Cross to support “integrated vector-control activities in Zika-affected areas,” including health, sanitation, and hygiene projects. Allen gave an additional $550,000 to Chembio Diagnostic Systems toward the support of the company’s rapid diagnostic tests. 

Related: Getting Ahead of the Next Epidemic: Paul Allen’s Rapid Response to Zika

Otherwise, it’s been pretty quiet on the Zika front as far as major NGO dollars are concerned. The funding tide still doesn’t seem to be rising very quickly here, but another tech funder has joined Allen and company to prevent what has been declared a public health emergency by the WHO, from reaching full-blown outbreak status.

Like Paul Allen, Google.org is opting to err on the side of caution when it comes to Zika. The foundation awarded UNICEF a $1 million grant to raise awareness, reduce the populations of mosquitoes that transmit the virus, and support the development of diagnostics and vaccines to prevent disease transmission.  

So as not to go at it blind, Google is mounting a Zika mapping campaign to anticipate where the virus will spread next. The project includes a team of Google engineers, data scientists and designers who are working alongside UNICEF to analyze weather and travel patterns to determine which regions Zika is expected to hit next.

Related: Will Data Mining Help Fight Malaria? Google.org Thinks So

According to Google.org director Jacquelline Fuller, the foundation hopes to make its mapping campaign available on an open source platform to “identify the risk of Zika transmission for different regions and help UNICEF, governments and NGO’s decide how and where to focus their time and resources.” Fuller also noted that while the current project is specific to Zika, it will be “applicable to future emergencies.”

It's worth recalling that Google also jumped in on Ebola, with Larry Page leading the charge and contributing his own money. 

Related: Google's Larry Page Just Gave Big for Ebola. Where's His Philanthropy Headed?

Still, as I said, not a lot of other funders are tuning in to Zika. It could be due to the comparatively mild symptoms, but so far, not too many foundations have jumped onboard to prevent the further spread of Zika. As this will likely grow from public health emergency to epidemic or even pandemic, we imagine more funders will join the effort. Nobody wants to see the likes of another disease outbreak, especially one that spreads as quickly and is as difficult to contain as Zika.