Researchers at the Utah State University Institute for Antiviral Research are out in front of the global outbreak of Zika virus.
Zika virus is currently spreading rapidly in Central and South America. Utah’s climate is inhospitable to Zika’s vector, the Asian tiger mosquito. But the virus can be found growing in culture in Utah State University labs in Logan, under strict biosafety protocols.
“We kind of got a jump on the field in some way. So, we started work in late December, early January, we had the virus in place, so when Zika exploded and there was a mad dash to get the virus, we already had it.”
USU Associate Professor Justin Julander and his team in the Institute for Antiviral Research are currently undertaking some the first antiviral tests in the USA to combat Zika virus.
“They first identified the virus in a monkey, a rhesus macaque, that was a sentinel animal that they had in a forest called the Zika forest in Uganda.”
Zika virus has been infecting people in Africa and Asia since at least the 1940s. It’s not deadly, so no one thought the virus was something to get excited about.
“It’s a very mild illness; 80% of infections are asymptomatic. And, it’s typically mild flu-like symptoms, you might have a rash, definitely a fever. It’s a wimpy virus.”
The USU team is testing drugs that are effective at treating related viruses, such as dengue and yellow fever. Why the fervent interest? During a 2013 outbreak in French Polynesia, doctors noticed the first hint that Zika virus might affect the nervous system: an increase in the prevalence of Guillain-Barrê syndrome, an obscure neurological condition. Late last year in eastern Brazil, an even more dramatic increase in babies born with microcephaly from areas where Zika was spreading increased global suspicion of a link.
“Any time you involve infections in children or the helpless populations, people get very interested.”
To date, about half of the recent Brazilian cases of microcephaly investigated have been confirmed as probably Zika-related, with thousands left to examine. No one noticed this link in Asia and Africa, partially because neurological birth defects have many other causes, and perhaps also because people in the eastern hemisphere have had the opportunity to evolve resistance, since they have lived with Zika virus for generations.