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Zika Is Likely to Become a Permanent Peril in U.S.

Mosquitos caught for testing in McAllen, Texas, await shipment to a lab. McAllen city workers are catching them in "mosquito traps" and sending them to labs to test for Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Mosquitos caught for testing in McAllen, Texas, await shipment to a lab. Southern states that harbor the species that carries Zika are watching for infected mosquitoes.
Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

Once Zika virus arrives in the United States, it will be here to stay. Leading experts now predict that the mosquito-borne disease will become a constant low-level threat that Americans will need to be vaccinated against routinely—as we do now for rubella, a virus that, like Zika, causes birth defects.

That is, once there is a vaccine for Zika. The earliest possible deployment of Zika vaccines could be several years away, researchers from around the globe predicted at an Atlanta conference Tuesday, the annual meeting of the Global Virus Network.

Overall, they said, Zika should be understood not as an epidemic wave that will pass over the world and then vanish, but rather as a permanent problem that will wax and wane, as West Nile virus has.

“We don’t know the future course of the epidemic of Zika, but we have to be prepared for the virus to be present for years,” José Esparza of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, current president of the Global Virus Network, said at the conference. “Without a vaccine, we will not be able to control the future course of this epidemic.”

Race for a Vaccine

Everyone reluctantly accepts that vaccines will take some time, while also expecting that infections could reach the United States soon. “The risk of Zika virus beginning to circulate in the United States on the mainland—it’s already in Puerto Rico, of course—is going to be peaking during the next few weeks,” said Scott Weaver, a virologist from the University of Texas Medical Branch.

“The number of travelers coming into the U.S. with Zika is very high, the temperatures are permissive now for mosquito transmission, and populations of mosquitos are growing,” he said.

Delfina Tirado, left, and Chalmers Vasquez of the Miami-Dade County's Mosquito Control Division inspect a pool in Miami, March 17, 2016. The Aedes aegypti mosquito -- the type that is spreading the Zika virus and fear of grave birth defects throughout Latin America and the Caribbean -- is being found in Florida and is expected to soon be buzzing around its usual haunts in the United States.
Workers from the Miami-Dade County’s Mosquito Control Division inspect a pool in Miami. The Aedes aegypti mosquito—the type that is spreading the Zika virus—is being found in Florida and is expected to soon be buzzing around its usual haunts in the United States.
Photograph by Max Reed/The New York Times

A vaccine is most needed to protect women who are pregnant or planning to be, because the virus causes devastating birth defects that seem to appear late in pregnancy, and may also cause more subtle problems as children get older.

“We have no information to believe there are any long-term consequences from infection to healthy adults or healthy children,” Weaver said.

While a small vaccine trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health could begin as early as next fall, expanding that research into trials with thousands of participants could be complicated by the rapid growth of the epidemic, which is both infecting people and also rendering them immune once they recover.

The first Zika vaccines to be developed probably won’t go to everyone, Weaver predicted. “I think initially there will be some vaccines developed and licensed that are not optimal for vaccinating large populations, that will require multiple doses,” he said. “Those will probably be targeted to girls before they reach childbearing age, or women … if we can determine that they are not immune, if we have the diagnostics to do that.

“And then eventually we should be able to develop a live attenuated vaccine, like the one we have now for yellow fever that has been available for many decades in South America,” Weaver said. Then, he added, doctors can vaccinate children, and the population will develop what we think of as “herd” immunity that protects even the unvaccinated.

MCALLEN, TX - APRIL 14: A health inspector sprays a neighborhood for mosquitos early on April 14, 2016 in McAllen, Texas. Health officials, especially in areas along the Texas-Mexico border, are preparing for the expected arrival of the Zika virus, carried by the aegypti mosquito, which is endemic to the region. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), announced this week that Zika is the definitive cause of birth defects seen in Brazil and other countries affected by the outbreak. ()
A health inspector sprays a neighborhood for mosquitos in McAllen, Texas. Health officials, especially in areas along the Texas-Mexico border, are preparing for the expected arrival of the Zika virus, which is endemic to the region.
Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

Introducing a Zika vaccine in that manner would follow the path that rubella vaccine took in the 1960s. Before the vaccine existed, epidemics of rubella (also known as “German measles”) caused only mild illness in adults; but the virus had devastating effects when it infected pregnant women. In 1964-65, the last such epidemic, 11,000 U.S. children were born deaf, 3,500 were born blind, 1,800 were born with developmental abnormalities, and women suffered 2,100 stillbirths—along with more than 11,000 miscarriages and elective abortions.

The vaccine was introduced in 1969 and put on the childhood vaccination schedule that is composed by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an expert panel that assists the CDC; it is part of the MMR (“measles, mumps, rubella”) shot given at 12-15 months and 4-6 years. Since the vaccine was introduced, there have been only a few cases of rubella in the United States each year.

While the Zika vaccine hunt proceeds, scientists said at the Atlanta conference, it’s imperative to create easy-to-use tests to identify infected people, most of whom show no symptoms. Right now, it is difficult even to ascertain how many people in the Zika zone are already immune, since the current tests for diagnosing Zika infection, which were developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are not commercially or widely available.

Zika’s Imminent Arrival

Travelers to the United States, whether visitors or residents returning home, are likely to be the reason that Zika ignites in the U.S. Weaver urged anyone traveling in the Zika zone to be scrupulous with mosquito repellent not just while there, but also for two weeks after they return, to be sure that they do not accidentally transmit the disease to U.S. mosquitos.

“It only takes one infected person to arrive and be bitten and the transmission cycle takes off,” Weaver said.

In the gap before a vaccine can arrive, the researchers said it’s important to achieve antiviral drugs that can work against the virus, and research presented at the conference suggests that combinations of drugs already on the market could be used in the short term.

In Recife, Brazil, Zika virus has been linked to birth defects in babies born to infected mothers. Here, Joao Batista comforts his daughter Alice Vitoria, who has microcephaly.
In Recife, Brazil, Zika virus has been linked to birth defects in babies born to infected mothers. Here, Joao Batista comforts his daughter Alice Vitoria, who has microcephaly.
Photograph by Tomas Munita, National Geographic

“These are drugs that have been used for a long time in people, so the safety issue is not a problem,” said Glaucius Oliva, a structural biologist from the Sao Carlos Institute of Physics at the University of Sao Paulo. “Repurposing drugs could begin in a year or two, whereas new drugs will take longer—10 years, maybe eight.”

Because so much research is needed, scientists sounded especially concerned that funding for Zika work in the U.S. has not yet been authorized. Congress went on recess without approving a White House request for more funds.

“A lot of the scientists in the U.S. are waiting for the floodgates to be opened with funding; a lot of the work that has been done so far has been done with shoestring budgets,” Raymond Schinazi, director of Emory’s Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology, said.

“This takes fuel, and the fuel unfortunately is very limited right now.”

11 thoughts on “Zika Is Likely to Become a Permanent Peril in U.S.

  1. Actually, Zika, and almost every other virus which ills humans, should be stopped by the new DRACOs being developed by Dr. Todd Rider, formerly of MIT.

    Said Rider on his Indiegogo funding page:
    “DRACOs (Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizers) are broad-spectrum antiviral candidates […] They have proved safe and effective in treating [t]wo different types of H1N1 influenza (flu), four types of rhinovirus (the common cold), two adenoviruses, dengue hemorrhagic fever”
    “In principle, the DRACO approach should be effective against virtually all known viruses, ”


    Check it out, a Pasteur in our time!

    1. There is no Zika vaccine so I imagine they won’t react any different than you do. If and when the medical chicken littles do develop a Zika vaccine it will probably be for pregnant women but even a female member of the ‘anti-vaccine’ crowd can go without the treatment simply by exercising caution. Anyway, since the CDC (the best source possible) has stated that most people who acquire Zika don’t even know they have it I’m going to make a logical leap and suggest that most pregnant women that acquire it won’t have a microcephalic baby.

    2. Let’s see how greedy, pre-meditatedly murderous Big Pharma and the AMA react to the windfall profits possibility.

  2. This doesn’t make sense. When an invasive species is NEW and found in only a few places, there’s still a chance of wiping it out or pushing it back. When a species is well-established and universal, much harder to wipe it out.

    1. That would require a commitment on the part of many governments to wipe it out, including the US. Don’t we know convincing Congress to fund more science to stop zika in its tracks is dead in the water?

  3. “Leading experts now predict…” Even though Zika was known about quite a while ago it was fundamentally ignored. Now, literally within months “leading experts” are shouting at the top of their lungs. This is about money, not about an imminent danger. NE Brazil, where a lot of Zika cases have been (apparently) identified is also a place where numerous water-borne, soil-borne, and vector-borne infectious diseases proliferate yet it has been used as the red flag for Zika, especially microcephaly. The CDC description says that very few people will even know they had been infected. If you are pregnant and really concerned, stay indoors during the mosquito season.

  4. A virus discovered 70 years ago and studied ever since suddenly, magically begins to cause birth defects (as in microcephaly) soon after larvicide was introduced to the water supply in a failed attempt to control mosquitos.

    Let’s all rush to get another vaccination that will prove less than worthless.

  5. In addition to spraying the crap out of everything how does a spider deal with bugs? A non-stop fool proof way to get rid of the pesky things for good? With something sticky, their web. I have been saying that a water soluble adhesive put on every home, business, and place you can roll it on would be more effective. Much like no-pest strips the bugs would just starve attached to the adhesive. When it rains you have to reapply it, and it will wash off easily with a hose. The problem is your dealing with billions of bugs and just spraying them is dangerous for ground water plus you need square footage to get rid of so many bugs. People will be using methods unsafe such as CO2 generators yes we surely need more of that in the air and other means less effective.

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