We see headlines,”How the Zika virus caught scientists flat-footed“. The authors of the article could only identify 146 scientific publications that mention Zika Virus. This is typical of our scientific knowledge in the 21st century.
What we lack: There is not enough money nor time for our current scientific establishment to study all diseases. Scientists must set priorities. The highest priorities are high risk – high certainty. Examples would be malaria, dengue or West Nile that kill people every year. Prior to the Brazil experience, Zika would fit into the category of low risk-high uncertainty. There was no evidence to suggest anything but a low risk, however, the small number of studies means large uncertainty is attached to the conclusions. When cases were reported from Brazil if Zika related birth defects, Zika moved to a potentially higher risk. Even now, we have correlations, but a moderate level of uncertainty. The higher risk alone warrants more attention.
What we have: We are not as flat-footed as the media might suggest. We have a very robust knowledge of the mosquitoes that transmit Zika and methods for their suppression. This comes from years of research and management of yellow fever and dengue. We have mosquito control districts with the capability of adding Zika to West Nile efforts. We have repellents and other personal protections against mosquito bites. We have powerful molecular biology tools that facilitate rapid development of disease diagnostics and a potential vaccine. We have institutions such as CDC in the US and World Health Organization world-wide with resources that can be directed to the problem. We have numerous scientists trained in medical entomology who can redirect some of their efforts to emergencies. Although we lack resources to develop these measures for all diseases in advance, we do have the resources necessary to rapidly address emerging crises.
Our capacity to address emerging diseases requires significant government investment in people and resources. In normal times, people debate whether or not the funding is worthwhile. In a crisis, that funding pays dividends.