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Health officials want more Zika samples, data from Brazil

Published:Friday | February 5, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Severina Raimunda holds her granddaughter Melisa Vitoria (left), who was born with microcephaly and her twin brother Edison Junior at the IMIP hospital in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil.


Brazil is not sharing enough samples and disease data to let researchers determine whether the Zika virus is, as feared, linked to the increased number of babies born with abnormally small heads in the South American country, United Nations and United States (US) health officials disclosed.

The lack of data is forcing laboratories in the US and Europe to work with samples from previous outbreaks, and is frustrating efforts to develop diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines. Scientists told The Associated Press that having so little to work with is hampering their ability to track the virus' evolution.

One major problem appears to be Brazilian law. At the moment, it is technically illegal for Brazilian researchers and institutes to share genetic material, including blood samples containing Zika and other viruses.

"It's a very delicate issue, this sharing of samples. Lawyers have to be involved," said Dr Marcos Espinal, director of communicable diseases in the World Health Organization's (WHO) regional office in Washington.

Espinal said he hoped the issue might be resolved after discussions between the US and Brazilian presidents. He said WHO's role was mainly to be a broker to encourage countries to share. When asked whether the estimate of other scientists that Brazil had provided fewer than 20 samples was true, he agreed it probably was.

"There is no way this should not be solved in the foreseeable future," he said. "Waiting is always risky during an emergency."