Researchers on a medical road trip through Brazil are using mobile labs to track Zika

British researchers are currently on a road trip through Brazil. The data they will collect over the 30-day venture will paint a picture of how Zika virus is spreading across populations.

The U.K.-based University of Birmingham-led project is being performed in conjunction with the Brazilian Ministry of Health's Instituto Evandro Chagas in Belem, and a handful of other organizations. The researchers are traveling with mobile laboratories outfitted with genome-sequencing gear and tools to analyze virus samples.

"Using the mobile laboratories, we can take to the roads of north-east Brazil to detect and characterize the early emergence of Zika in large urban centers," Nick Loman, PhD, a University of Birmingham researcher, said in a statement. "The data we gather will help to understand how the virus has spread across Brazil, Latin America, and make better predictions about how it might spread to other regions in the future. We are also able to bring cutting-edge genomic surveillance technology to public health laboratories previously unequipped with this capability."

Data collected on the mission will be made available to other researchers and the public. Sequencing viral genomes in regions experiencing outbreaks helps to get a better understanding of how the virus evolves in realtime, and methods like this proved useful in monitoring the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, according to the researchers.

Although Zika virus has spread to many countries around the world, including the U.S. where the first locally contracted cases were reported just a few weeks ago, Brazil is where researchers made the initial connection between Zika and microcephaly, a crippling birth defect that affects the infants of pregnant mothers who become infected. 

More articles on Zika:

WHO to rethink Zika travel recommendations for Olympics next week 
Study: Zika directly infects brain cells, subverts immune system 
Infographic: Where in the US have Zika cases been reported? [June 3 update] 

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