Baric, using a database of genetic
sequences from around the world to re-create earlier models of the Zika virus, aims to
see when Zika morphed from being mostly
benign into being dangerous. Knowing that
will help speed development of treatments
and vaccines, both ones that work against
numerous related viruses and ones that
work just against the current strain.
“Somewhere in that family tree, muta-
tions occurred that made Zika more
transmissible and pathogenic, especially to
a developing embryo,” Baric said. “In that
sequence lineage are the clues to how this
And then a process that once took
decades to work can take mere weeks.
“A new virus can emerge in China or
Africa or the U.S., and the sequence can be
available in two days,” Baric said. “Within a
Phase I Zika vaccine trials are available.
But now Zika has thrown scientists another
curve. Somehow it has become sexually
transmittable. That is unprecedented.
“When the reports of sexual transmis-
“It’s problematic because you have
sion started occurring, once again there was
some skepticism,” Lazear said, “because we
don’t see this with other related viruses.”
People in the U.S. have become infected
even though they hadn’t been exposed to
infected mosquitoes. Their partners had
been exposed, though, so now the race
is on to see how long Zika is present in
semen. The testes are, after all, an immune
privilege site, as are the brain and the fetal
compartment. The human immune system
doesn’t pay as much attention to them, so
there’s evidence that the virus can linger,
and men can spread the virus for a long
time after their own infections have cleared.
someone who by all appearances has
recovered, and yet we don’t know how long
that can persist,” Lazear said.
So researchers are trying to predict who
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‘Humans are an outbred
population. We have mixed
genes, so some of us are highly
susceptible to a certain disease,
and some highly resistant to one
but then susceptible to another.’