ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Public health officials are scrambling to track the spread of the Zika virus in the Americas. They're trying to nail down whether there really is a connection between this virus and microcephaly, the birth defect that leaves babies with small heads and brains. And NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that in labs, scientists are racing to get a hold of the virus to run experiments that could show how it works and it's capable of.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Zika virus was discovered back in 1947. But until recently, almost no one studied it. If you go to the searchable database of grants from the National Institutes of Health and type in Zika, just one name pops up - Scott Weaver at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
SCOTT WEAVER: Well, I've been really working on Zika for a long time because in Africa, it circulates with three other viruses that, until recently, were considered a lot more important.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Those other viruses were his focus. His lab did very little with Zika, which was thought to cause a mild illness, if any. But everything changed last fall when Weaver went to a conference on mosquito-borne diseases and heard some shocking news. In Brazil, it looked like Zika was linked to microcephaly.
WEAVER: Most of our work now is on Zika. We really shifted dramatically and ramped up our efforts.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's not alone. His university has a collection of mosquito-borne viruses that it provides other labs on request, and requests for Zika are pouring in.
WEAVER: Probably a year ago, for Zika we would have gotten one or two requests in a whole year. And now we're getting several each day.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Every week, they've been shipping out dozens of Zika samples to labs around the world. One of those labs belongs to Michael Diamond at Washington University in St. Louis. He says government officials have been reaching out to virologists like him, offering extra funding to speed up the work.
MICHAEL DIAMOND: This is one of the few times that I have been an investigator where the NIH has called me.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Usually scientists are the ones calling NIH and begging for money. One of the things his lab is now doing is trying to find a way to re-create the disease seen in humans in a lab animal.
DIAMOND: There really hasn't been any work done in about 40 years on Zika virus in animals.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says normal adult mice don't get sick from Zika, but they're trying it in different kinds of mice, using different viral strains in different doses. Scientists have also been looking at the Zika virus itself to see if it's mutated in any way that could explain this unusual outbreak.
HELEN LAZEAR: The thing about working with Zika virus is that almost everything is a big unknown.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Helen Lazear studies Zika at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She says folks in Brazil have sequenced the genes of Zika viruses circulating there so they can be compared to Zika viruses collected earlier around the world.
LAZEAR: There are some differences in the sequence between the viruses, but we don't know if that's just a chance variation in the sequence or if this is something that impacts disease. But we're working on having the systems in place to test that.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
And of course, the big scientific question everyone wants answered is what exactly is the link between Zika and birth defects? Yoel Sadovsky is a physician-researcher at the Magee Women's Research Institute in Pittsburgh.
YOEL SADOVSKY: This is one of those situations that we feel intrigued by the science, of course, but we really feel that we have here a moral obligation to act as rapidly as possible.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says placenta cells normally act as a first line of defense to protect the fetus from viruses in the mother's blood. He wants to study how those cells react to Zika. His collaborator is Carolyn Coyne at the University of Pittsburgh. She says they'll explore the relationship between Zika and a closely related virus which is common in Brazil.
CAROLYN COYNE: One could argue that it's possible that the pre-exposure to dengue virus in some way may alter the ability of Zika virus to infect these women and/or cross the placenta.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But when she went to order Zika virus from one major lab supplier, they were out of stock.
COYNE: They are actually backordered until July for the virus. At least, that's what we were told.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She was able to find another source, and a sample of Zika arrived at her lab this morning. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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