New Zika virus test—and a map of ‘Zika zones’

While CDC steps up its analysis, private companies race to commercialize tests, vaccines and tracking mechanisms

Following a path trod—most recently—by the Ebola outbreak in 2014, public and private attention to the Zika virus is accelerating in the US. On Aug. 2, LabCorp of America announced that it had won Emergency Use Authorization from FDA for a new type of diagnostic test for the Zika virus. The test, called Zika Immunoglobulin M Antibody Capture Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (Zika MAC-ELISA), was developed by CDC. “We are pleased to be among the first commercial laboratories to make the Zika MAC-ELISA test available to physicians for patients who meet CDC criteria for testing,” said David P. King, LabCorp’s chairman and CEO. LabCorp provides the testing to doctors and public health authorities whose patients show evidence of infection; for its part, LabCorp is obligated to report findings back to CDC. The test offers some advantages over existing protocols, such as the RT-PCR test, which is offered as a kit called RealStar by LabCorp. The emergency use authorization is provisional and could be rescinded by FDA.

Meanwhile, another company, ZikaZone JV, jumped onto online media this week to offer what it calls ZikaZoneUSA.com, an “up-to-date map of where conditions are prime for the Zika-spreading mosquito to breed, bite, and potentially infect humans with the Zika virus.” It is important to note that ZikaZoneUSA does not track infections or even virus-carrying mosquitoes, but rather the “ecological conditions” where the mosquitoes might favorably breed, based on weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, GIS data and other factors. “Our work is just beginning. As we learn more about this emerging threat, we will continue to refine our process,” said Jeff Hicks, managing partner of FernLeaf Interactive, in a statement. FernLeaf, together with a company called CASE Consultants, is running the ZikaZone JV. ZikaZone operates from an Asheville, NC business incubator called The Collider, which was set up to develop commercial applications of NOAA data.

There’s an air of opportunism around ZikaZone (which the company concedes is a beta version still under development), but the technology represents the potential of state-of-the-art, cloud-based Big Data analytics, and is reminiscent of the early efforts by Google to mine user database searches as a way to track flu epidemics. CDC updates its public data weekly, and also has a map, but one only tracking identified infected patients. ZikaZone has the potential to be a predictive tool; it could also be an overhyped way to generate anxiety but not real public health benefit.

There is no vaccine for the Zika virus which, as CDC notes, generally results in a mild fever for most patients, but has the potential to cause severe birth defects with pregnant women. Inovio Pharma, Sanofi and others are working on vaccines, but their commercial use is a year or away. There are reports that as Brazil, where the Zika virus outbreak first caught worldwide attention, is seeing a declining number of new Zika cases due to seasonal weather factors; but that only highlights what will happen when the Southern Hemisphere’s summer returns.