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Fighting the Spread of Zika with Data Sharing

September 14, 2016

Ambitious global projects like Zika Open and OpenZika are aiming to stem the virus' progress through pooled research efforts.

"Maybe in the future, this will help us get better diagnostic tests on the market—or get the first child research protocol approved." — Laragh Gollogly, Bulletin of the World Health Organization

As concerns around the spread of the Zika virus rise, there's one thing that's keeping it contained. No, it's not a cutting-edge bug repellent or a fancy detector—it's data sharing.

In the early months of any outbreak, lack of information is what hampers meaningful attempts to contain a virus and eventually treat its victims. The simple act of sharing research and data can save thousands of hours of time and potentially reduce the number of victims down the road. Data-sharing projects like Zika Open and OpenZika are pushing for higher visibility for data in hopes of slowing Zika's progress.

Sharing Early and Often

Data collection and sharing are critical to overall world health, say healthcare experts, because they could thwart the kind of outbreaks that turned the Ebola virus into such a menace. “One of the salient lessons learned during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the importance of data sharing," the World Health Organization recently reported. “As the disease spread and the world mobilized to understand the virus and find medical countermeasures and other disease control interventions, much valuable knowledge was lost or action delayed because data was not shared in a timely and open manner."

To shed light on Zika, WHO's public health journal, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, is making all Zika-related manuscripts available for free, online on the WHO's Zika Open webpage right away, even while they're still undergoing peer review. “The idea behind this is that we can solve problems more quickly by getting the research online," says Laragh Gollogly, editor of the Bulletin. "The questions researchers ask will improve."

Researchers can dig deeper into questions about Zika that will hopefully lead to strategies for fighting the virus—like understanding in which trimester pregnant women are most at risk, or what happens when a Zika infection co-exists with dengue fever. A Dutch paper on Zika Open about developing more accurate Zika diagnostic tests, Gollogly points out, could save researchers and clinicians thousands of hours of time and advance their own efforts to refine Zika diagnostics.

The data-sharing concept for Zika follows ideas set out by the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest charitable organizations, in a 2015 agreement among 30 international research organizations. The organizations—including the Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health—agreed that any Zika-related research will be made available free of charge, and that researchers will endeavor to share data “as rapidly and widely as possible." The expectation is that during future health emergencies, researchers will see the value of rapid disclosure of health data.

"Virtual Experiments" to Find a Vaccine

The OpenZika project, launched by Dr. Carolina Horta Andrade, a professor and researcher at Universidade Federal de Goiás in Brazil, is also using data-sharing to help halt the spread of Zika. OpenZika is sharing data that can be used to develop potential anti-Zika treatments or vaccines—neither of which currently exist. Researchers are conducting “virtual experiments" that screen tens of millions of chemical compounds against the proteins that Zika uses to spread in the human body. To conduct these tests, Andrade and her colleagues are using the World Community Grid, an IBM-developed public community grid that amasses computing power from people's mobile devices and desktop computers—providing much faster results than the participating organizations could generate on their own.

Dr. Adam Kucharski, a lecturer in infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says having quick, reliable data from multiple sources around the world is vital when trying to find symptoms for a disease. During the Ebola outbreak, Kucharski says many of the efforts were focused on analyzing and "cleaning" the data that organizations had already collected instead of attempting to gain more, which slowed down the process of containing the outbreak.

"A lot of this genetic information has been published online, so researchers in one area can very quickly look at what's been going on in other places and compare and see the global picture rather than just look at the study that they're working on," Kucharski says. "Having good data early on is unquestionably valuable during an outbreak, particularly when you have a growing infection—whether it's Zika or it's Ebola."

Connecting the Dots

In another effort to enable data-sharing about Zika, Google announced earlier this year that it's lending support to UNICEF health researchers to create an open-source platform to visualize potential outbreaks. The platform will pull together data such as weather and travel patterns to help researchers identify where the virus may become a larger threat—and therefore, where nonprofits and government agencies should deploy health resources.

The insights yielded from data on public health emergencies like Zika can collapse the typical time frames for research breakthroughs—or at least, connect the dots so that small victories can be won, like slowing down outbreaks. Gollogly points out that researchers from other countries are conducting their own baseline studies of microcephaly, one of the most serious birth defects resulting from a Zika infection. Such studies, which borrow from the early papers posted on Zika Open, can enable local health officials to detect early warning signs of possible Zika outbreaks and step up preventive measures such as mosquito control.

“There are so many unknowns with a disease like Zika," Gollogly says. “Our hope is that we can get answers earlier. Maybe in the future, this will help us get better diagnostic tests on the market—or get the first child research protocol approved."

This story was produced by the WIRED Brand Lab for Comcast B2B.

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