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IMR experts in race to identify Zika virus strain

by September 4, 2016 General

Two employees of the Institute for Medical Research carry out tests for Zika virus and other viruses. — Picture from Dr Fadzilah’s Facebook pageTwo employees of the Institute for Medical Research carry out tests for Zika virus and other viruses. — Picture from Dr Fadzilah’s Facebook page

PETALING JAYA, Sept 5 — Authorities are scrambling to identify the Zika strain in the country despite the virus being first detected here in the 1960s.

Health Ministry director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) was determining the strain of the virus, as a virologist confirmed there had been no efforts to study Zika up until days ago.

“We are conducting the sequencing (to identify the strain) in IMR and this may take some time,” Dr Noor Hisham said.

This comes after scientists in Singapore revealed the virus in the republic likely evolved from a strain already circulating in South-east Asia, and was not imported from South America.

As of noon yesterday, Singapore recorded 242 Zika cases, 27 more from the day before.

On Thursday, the Health Ministry revealed a 58-year-old woman from Bandar Botanic, Klang, was the first person in the country to be infected with Zika following her recent visit to Singapore.

On Saturday, the ministry revealed a 61-year-old from Sabah was the first victim to contract the virus locally. The man died on the same day because of other health complications.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said the confirmation of the second case of Zika in Kota Kinabalu “suggests the virus was already present in the country”.

“He was infected after being bitten by a mosquito which was carrying the virus within our country,” he said in a Facebook posting yesterday.         

“It suggests there are other infected people in the community who are potential sources of infection.”

Universiti Malaya virologist Prof Dr Sazaly Abu Bakar said there had not been a proper study on the virus since it was first detected in Bentong, Pahang, in 1969.

Another case recorded by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was when a 45-year-old American returned with the virus after visiting Sabah in 2014.

“We don’t know the number of incidences of Zika here before as there was no prevalent study carried out,” Dr Sazaly said.

“There is the Asian strain which is similar to the one that caused the outbreak in Brazil as opposed to the one in South Africa.”

He said there was a possibility the strain in Malaysia was similar to that in Singapore but that the situation here differed because of the high number of dengue cases.

“We’ve had the virus since 1969 so it’s been here for some time. People may not know that they had Zika before,” he said.

There was a possibility that Malaysians could have developed an immunity against the virus, he said.

“There are several flaviviruses in the country and this can invoke the immune’s response, possibly protecting us against Zika,” he said.

“There are other flaviviruses that could possibly protect us or enhance the infection. We will only know through in-depth studies.”

IMR director Datuk Dr Fadzilah Kamaludin had shared the work conducted by the institute in investigating the virus on Facebook.

“IMR also performs sequencing of the Zika viral genome to identify genetic lineage/strain type of the Zika virus to relate to the existing circulating Zika viruses worldwide,” her post read.

Dr Fadzilah said IMR was also developing a method which could simultaneously detect Zika and dengue genome in blood samples.

“This kit will be provided to all government hospitals and public health laboratories that can perform molecular diagnostics,” she said.