Southern Research intends to serve as a source of information on the Zika virus for both the Birmingham community and the scientific community, a group of panelists announced last week at the group’s campus. The staff at Southern Research wants to counter the misinformation on Zika that they have seen in the mainstream media, said Rossi Carlson, the nonprofit’s advanced marketing specialist, at last Thursday’s “Advances in Zika Research” panel discussion.
Southern Research’s biosafety professional Sarah Ziegler announced at the panel that she has been working with the Jefferson County Department of Public Health to ensure that area doctors and nurses are prepared to treat Zika cases.
“What I’ve been trying to do is take the really in-depth scientific knowledge that we’re doing at the bench and take that to the bedside, talking to doctors and nurses about what we’re finding out in research,” Ziegler said. “So it’s almost in real time that we’re able to translate some of the research we’re doing here at Southern Research and let doctors and first responders know about the Zika virus.
“As everyone knows, this is going very quickly through our community and we don’t always have time to wait for a publication and wait for things to happen, so what I’m trying to do is make myself available so those types of people can come to me and ask questions.”
As more and more cases of Zika continue to be reported in Alabama, it is important to ensure that the community is informed of how to recognize infection, Ziegler said. “This virus is not acting like a lot of other flaviviruses that are out there, and so trying to do the research we’re doing and then being able to talk the community about how this is different, how does this look different than dengue or some these other viruses — I think that’s really important,” she added.
While Ziegler is working with local doctors, Carlson’s efforts are focused on educating the community at large and correcting misconceptions regarding Zika in the media.
“We realized that there is more bad information [than correct information] in the mainstream media,” said Carlson. “They weren’t getting the right information and there was lots of speculation.”
Carlson explained that Southern Research began actively working to disseminate information about Zika through the media in January and set up a “micro-site” on the Southern Research website where they publish their findings on the virus. The site also contains more general information about Zika, including the CDC’s guidelines and advisories to the public concerning the disease. She said that publicly tackling public ignorance on Zika helped Southern Research obtain a $900,000 contract with National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases (NIAID).
The contract will be used to set up a non-human model that will be used to test vaccines and antivirals, said panelist Timothy Sellati, the chair of Southern Research’s Infectious Diseases Department.
“On one end, a vaccine is ideal because that will prevent people from becoming infected,” Sellati said. “But then you have individuals that are already infected, and in the context of women carrying babies we need to figure out how to therapeutically protect that precious cargo that they’re carrying so that they can come to term and deliver healthy babies as opposed to babies with developmental and neurological disorders.”
The contract also mandates that Southern Research share their data “in real time” with the institute, Jonathan Rayner, Southern Research’s director of infectious disease research, said at the panel discussion. In a phone conversation with Weld, Rayner explained that Southern Research is currently exploring different commercial or free scientific publication sites through which they can present their findings to the broader scientific community.
Carlson noted that for the scientists at Southern Research, who are used to publicizing their findings through peer-reviewed journals, being asked to publicly disseminate their research findings through the mainstream media was a significant change. “There’s hesitancy sometimes to not speak to the news when you don’t know all of the facts,” she admitted. “But I think for us it was important to speak to the news when we didn’t know all the facts, and we just were upfront about the fact that there are many things we don’t know.”