The Zika virus was what you might call a side project for Helen Lazear. Insect-borne viruses that circulate between insects and monkeys in the jungle —and that generally cause no significant harm to humans — that’s
Lazear’s main area of study.
In her postdoctoral work at Washington University
in St. Louis, Lazear thought about which of these
viruses were good candidates for emergence into a
wider outbreak. Which ones, for example, were most
likely to become a problem for people?
“Because these things don’t come from nowhere,”
she says. “Usually you’ll have a scenario where there’s
sort of a smaller simmering outbreak somewhere that
maybe people who study these things are aware of, and
it just hasn’t really gotten large enough that the wider
world is paying attention.”
She set up systems to study such viruses in case an
outbreak occurred. The work, which she hurried to
finish before leaving her postdoc, included what she
called “a ton” of Zika virus experiments.
Zika is not new. It was discovered in 1947 in
Uganda, and named for a forest there. It’s moved
around: Where people go, so go disease-carrying
mosquitoes. It caused fever and rash in adults, but they
recovered easily. Not exactly a public health emergency;
still, understanding it would help Lazear understand
In 2007, Zika cases emerged in Asia, then on
several Pacific islands. In spring 2015, it showed up in
Brazil. Six months later, that country told the World
Health Organization about an unusual spike in cases
of microcephaly — a birth defect, considered rare, in
which a newborn’s head is significantly smaller than
it should be. Two weeks later, health officials in Brazil
spotted a connection.
That was about the time UNC Assistant Professor
Helen Lazear, then 34, was opening her lab in the
department of microbiology and immunology. She’d
come to one of the country’s foremost places to study
infectious disease just as the Zika virus was shifting
from side project to front-page news.
The usually routine discussions with UNC’s
institutional biosafety committee — which deals with
how to protect lab workers from nasty stuff they work
with — weren’t just academic this time: Lazear, whose
lab was gearing up to handle the Zika virus daily, was
pregnant with her third child.
“Starting a new lab is always a challenge,” she said.
“Starting a new lab when there’s an outbreak on the
disease that you work on is exciting but especially
challenging — it brings new opportunities but also a
Helen Lazear studied the Zika virus in her
postdoctoral work as part of the routine exploration
of viruses in its family. Now in her lab in the
Burnett-Womack Building at UNC, the research has
taken on more urgency.