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Spread of Zika virus prompting Utah researchers to find treatment

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BOUNTIFUL — Until a few weeks ago, many people had probably never heard of the Zika virus, which was first diagnosed in the 1940s. Now, the number of cases have exploded in Central and South America, and there are increasing concerns as it begins to move north.

"They may have vaccines in trials by the end of the year, but no one realistically thinks that there will be a vaccine available for general use any time in the near future," said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at the University of Utah Hospital.

The virus is spread by mosquitoes and has been linked to birth defects. Microcephaly has been reported in babies born to infected mothers. While dangerous to women who are pregnant, Swaminathan said Zika is rarely fatal.

"Generally speaking, it is a very benign illness," he said. "People who have it can have fever, headache, a rash, muscle aches and pains and eye inflammation."

The recent outbreak is prompting researchers around the nation to focus on treatments, and one of those is a small lab in Bountiful. Co-Diagnostics Inc. is working to find ways to identify the disease faster, particularly in the poorer countries where the outbreak is occurring.

"Zika is a little tricky because it's very closely related to Yellow Fever, to encephalitis, to West Nile," Joseph Featherstone, chief of company operations said Friday. "We want to have a test that can literally be afforded anywhere in the world. That's our goal; that's where we're trying to get to: speed, development and having a test that's very, very inexpensive."

Dr. Brent Satterfield, Co-Diagnostics chief scientific officer, is the man behind the effort.

"The technology that we've developed that is new allows us to do things faster and at a lower cost. And we've applied that toward the Zika virus, which very few companies have done until this point," he said.

To be able to positively identify the disease can lead to specific treatments. In the case of the Zika outbreak, speed is everything.

According to Andrew Benson, head of public relations for Co-Diagnostics Inc., "Being able to identify that this (virus) is what you have and not that, is the first step to accurate and prompt treatment. And that's what we hope to accomplish."

Featherstone is confident the process is sound, but it will still need approval by regulators.

"We designed the test. We are in the process of verifying it in-house. We've had tremendous success and then what we do is go to third-party validation to make sure everyone is on board," he said.

Government regulators will then have to review it, but even if it is fast-tracked and passes the test, it still could be months before it's in use.

As for those who are planning travel to Central and South America in the near future, Swaminathan offers this simple advice, "If you're pregnant, the message would be … don't (go)."

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Keith McCord


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