Google gets in on Zika R&D with $1M grant to UNICEF

With the number of Zika cases on the rise, health experts are calling for more tools that can identify the virus sooner. Now Google ($GOOG) is getting in on the effort, donating $1 million to emergency relief organization UNICEF to help create new diagnostics for Zika and map the virus' spread.

UNICEF will use to grant to support initiatives including raising awareness about Zika, developing tests and vaccines for the virus and educating communities and governments about Zika transmission, Google said in a blog post. If all goes to plan, the organization will reach about 200 people affected by or vulnerable to the virus in Brazil and Latin America.

Google will also work with UNICEF to build a platform that analyzes data to predict Zika outbreaks. The open-source platform created by Google engineers, designers and data scientists will track the risk of Zika transmission in different regions and help UNICEF, world governments and NGOs decide how to allocate resources.

"As a company whose mission is helping people find information, with a lot of experience in analyzing large sets of data, we're in a good position to help--at scale and at speed," the company said in its blog post.

The effort comes amid growing concerns over the virus. Google has seen a more than 3,000% increase in global search interest for Zika since November, the company said. Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency after more cases cropped up.

Zika is difficult to track and contain because people with the virus often do not show symptoms. Health experts are calling for tests that can more quickly and accurately identify Zika and shed light on an associated condition in infants.

Scientists are still trying to understand the link between Zika and birth defects such as microcephaly, a condition that causes abnormally small head size and developmental problems in babies. Brazilian officials have said that Zika might be tied to more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly since October.

U.S. regulators are taking steps to address the issue. Last week, the FDA approved the first test for Zika for emergency use. The test, which was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), can screen for anti-Zika antibodies using a patient's blood or spinal fluid.

Zika presents "significant potential for a public health emergency," Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sylvia Burwell said last month, which prompted regulators to issue its clearance for the Zika test, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a letter to the CDC last week.

- here's the blog post