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USAID awards Zika grant funding to three Johns Hopkins research teams

Federal officials have awarded funding for the study and prevention of outbreaks of the Zika virus to three teams of public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University. (defenseimagery.mil/MGN)

BALTIMORE (WBFF) – Federal officials have awarded funding for the study and prevention of outbreaks of the Zika virus to three teams of public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. Agency for International Development awarded a portion of its $15 million in funding for its “Combating Zika and Future Threats Challenge” to the three teams, comprising a communication group and teams led by two professor studying malaria, a JHU spokesperson said on Wednesday.

One of the professors, Conor McMeniman, is an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute, housed in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. His team will focus on the chemistry of the human scent that attracts mosquitoes carrying Zika virus and dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever, among other diseases, in hopes of designing a lure to trap those mosquitoes.

“The goal is to develop a custom fragrance to bait mosquito traps and improve our ability to fight mosquito-borne illnesses,” McMeniman said in a release.

To do this, his team of researchers will use microscopes to study the nervous systems of genetically engineered mosquitoes of the Zika-carrying strain, the school said.

The second team, led by George Dimopolous, also a professor at the Malaria Institute, has identified a new bacterium that can kill adult mosquito species, as well as their larvae, that transmit Zika virus, West Nile virus, malaria and dengue and yellow fever. The bacterium also blocks pathogens that transmit infections in the mosquitoes’ guts, the school said in a release.

Dimopolous’ team will be using the grant funding to develop the bacterium into a cost-effective, environmentally sustainable and “logistically simple” biopesticide. Dimopolous said he hopes the end-products created from that bacterium could be found in both household goods and larger mosquito-control tools.

“This can be a highly potent weapon against current and future mosquito-borne diseases,” Dimopoulos said in the release.

The third team, made up of researchers from the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs, will be working with a consulting firm to develop a plan to help communities contain the virus themselves. The team will be working on an “optimization tool” that combines local data with evidence-based behavior change and habit formation principles to help households and communities preventively stop the spread of the virus. This can be accomplished by cleaning standing water where mosquitoes breed, the school said.

"As we saw during the Ebola crisis, changes in habits and behavior can have substantial impact on the spread of disease,” said the program’s executive director, Susan Krenn. “To be successful, behavior change strategies for Zika will need to be tailored to local contexts and leverage existing behaviors and habits.”

USAID has designed its grant challenge program to award teams with “game-changing solutions” to stop Zika’s spread and impact in areas around the world, JHU said. The agency is awarding 21 grants in all, totaling $15 million.

Zika is linked to birth defects in babies born to mothers who contracted the virus. It has been found spreading in areas of South and Central America, and was recently detected in a small section of Miami.

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