The UK’s Medical Research Council has announced a ‘rapid response’ call for research applications centred on the Zika virus, as the infection continues to spread at an alarming rate.

Up to £1 million is to be made available from the government’s £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund to researchers seeking to investigate the nature of Zika, its transmission and the potential links to neurological conditions including microcephaly, in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the virus.

“It’s critical that we find out more about the Zika virus as soon as possible, so we are allocating funding to help researchers answer some of the most pressing questions about the disease,” said Professor Sir John Savill, the MRC’s chief executive.

“We need to be able to develop treatments and vaccines but first we need answers to vital questions about the nature of this virus - such as if and how it is changing, how to control the spread of the disease, and how to both diagnose and prevent infection”.

At the same time as the rapid response initiative, the MRC and the Foundation for Science and Technology of the state of Pernambuco (FAPERPE) have recently agreed to jointly fund a research proposal to investigate the viral features and host responses to Zika virus with a view to designing new preventative strategies. 

The news comes as the number of Zika virus infections continue to grow. Florida governor Rick Scott has now declared a state of emergency in the four counties where patients have been diagnosed with the virus, while the World Health Organisation has declared an international public health emergency, and has called for a coordinated international response to minimise the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread.

“Zika is unlikely to be a serious public health problem in the UK, because the virus is spread by tropical mosquitos, but it’s hugely important that we use our home-grown expertise to help tackle health problems of significant global impact,” Prof Saville said.

Only 20% of those infected with the disease will experience any symptoms, the most common of which are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes), but it is thought to pose a serious risk to developing foetuses, having been linked to a neurological birth disorder called microcephaly which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads. 

Brazil has revealed it is investigating 3,670 suspected cases of microcephaly in babies linked to the Zika virus, according to the BBC.