In February 2016, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus to be a global public health emergency due to its rapid spread and new concerns about its link to a rise in neurological conditions.
The virus is rapidly spreading in new geographic areas such as the Americas, where people have not been previously exposed to the disease and therefore have little immunity to it. In April 2016, the Centers for Disease Control announced that a rise in severe neurological disorders, especially in children, has been linked to the Zika virus. Some pregnant women who have contracted the Zika virus have given birth to infants with a condition called microcephaly, which results in brain development issues typically leading to severe mental deficiencies. In other cases, paralysis and other neurological problems can occur, even in adults.
Currently, there is no vaccine to provide immunity to the disease and no antiviral drug for curing Zika, although various efforts are underway. Even though the virus was first identified in 1947, there has been little research since then, because the symptoms of the infection are usually mild. However, new data on links between Zika and microcephaly or other neurological issues have revealed that the disease may not be so benign, prompting the need for intensified research efforts.
The OpenZika project on World Community Grid aims to identify drug candidates to treat the Zika virus in someone who has been infected. The project will target proteins that the Zika virus likely uses to survive and spread in the body, based on what is known from similar diseases, such as dengue virus and yellow fever. In order to develop an anti-Zika drug, researchers need to identify which of millions of chemical compounds might be effective at interfering with these key proteins. The effectiveness of each compound will be tested in virtual experiments, called “docking calculations,” performed on World Community Grid volunteers’ computers and Android devices. These calculations would help researchers focus on the most likely compounds that may eventually lead to an antiviral medicine.
The OpenZika research team is committed to releasing all their data to the public as quickly as possible, so other scientists can help advance the development of some of these active compounds into new drugs. They hope the OpenZika project will include a second stage, with virtual screenings on many more compounds.
The information on this page was last updated in April 2016.