Pitt announces $400,000 in grants for Zika research
The University of Pittsburgh is pushing ahead with its efforts to fight the Zika virus even as Congress is mired in bureaucracy and refusing to approve emergency money to address the spreading disease.
Pitt on Thursday announced it will disburse $400,000 in funding for six grants through Pitt's Cura Zika program to researchers searching for new ways to diagnose and understand the virus along with trying to find different avenues to prevent infections.
“We're facing a public health emergency and we are going to respond accordingly,” Donald Burke, dean of Pitt's graduate school of public health, said minutes before addressing more than 100 faculty and students packed inside a Crabtree Hall lecture room. “We felt we should try to make things move as fast as we can even if there are no additional sources of federal funding.”
Earlier this week, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency is running out of money in its fight against Zika even as nearly 50 people in Florida are suspected to have been infected via mosquito bite. Congress, which is back in session next week, has resisted a presidential request to free up $1.9 billion to combat the virus.
“I think that's unconscionable” Burke told the Tribune-Review. “I expect my government to do much better.”
Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health in May launched Cura Zika, an international alliance with counterparts in Brazil, to speed up fundraising for research into the virus. The association hopes to raise at least $1 million from anonymous donors and matching funds. So far, Pitt has contributed $200,000, and another $200,000 came from donors.
The six grant recipients announced Thursday were from a pool of 15 applicants. The grants went to three Brazilian researchers and three from Pitt.
Jennifer Adibi, a Pitt assistant professor of epidemiology, was among the recipients. Her research will delve into Zika's impact on pregnant women and the placenta during the first trimester of pregnancy.
“This is extremely exciting for me,” she said.
Dr. Ernesto Marques, a physician and Pitt microbiologist whose hometown of Recife is the epicenter of the Brazilian Zika outbreak, attended Thursday's announcement. Marques splits time between Pittsburgh and Brazil and was studying another mosquito-borne virus, dengue, last year when Zika surfaced.
He said it's crucial at summer's end to gain as much knowledge as possible about Zika because the virus may infect mosquito eggs, causing it to strike much earlier next year.
“When the eggs hatch, you may have infected mosquitoes at the beginning of the season,” Marques said.
The first suspected case of Zika through a mosquito bite in the continental United States occurred in early August in Florida.
Zika is primarily transmitted by Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito that thrives in tropical areas and exists in the Southern United States, surfacing during warmer months. The CDC linked the virus to microcephaly, an affliction in which babies are born with smaller than normal heads and often smaller, improperly developed brains.
The Zika virus, which has spread across the Caribbean and Latin America, is generally transmitted by mosquitoes, but can be passed through sex. There is no vaccine available to prevent it.
As Congress stalls to approve the emergency funds requested by President Obama, CDC Director Thomas Frieden said this week that “the cupboard is bare” financially for tracking and fighting mosquitoes.
“We need Congress to act,” he said.
“The slow pace in which government makes decisions makes it really hard to deal with emergency situations like this,” he said. “It's very unfortunate that the CDC is running out of money because they were the ones on the front lines.”
Of Cura Zika's contributions, he said, “This shows that private philanthropy still plays an important role in this country.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.