Zika virus may never completely go away, UNC researcher says

Widman shows CBS North Carolina's Sean Maroney a sample of the Zika virus.


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Of the 18 people in North Carolina infected with the Zika virus, none have contracted it in the state, officials said.

But that can change.

Just Friday, Florida officials said four Zika cases in the Sunshine State came from mosquitoes in the Miami area.

More than 1,650 Zika infections have been reported in the U.S., but the four patients in Florida would be the first not linked to travel outside the U.S. mainland.

Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill are spearheading the effort to find a cure.

Widman is an epidemiologist at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and is one of 10 people who have been working since May 2015 on a cure to Zika.

“This has been on my radar since last May when I first heard about it bubbling down there,” Widman said.

Brazil has been a hotspot for the virus but the country has been hesitant to supply the actual virus to U.S. researchers.

So Widman and his team took matters into their own hands.

They created the virus in their lab using the genetic code of the virus that was publish online.

And they didn’t stop there.

They went as far as to create Zika’s family tree in a move that Widman said was “really important.”

zika

Zika first appeared 70 years ago and up until 2005, it had only infected around 40 people.

But now officials estimate 100 million could be infected over then next three years.

“It looks like something changed with the virus,” Widman said.

It became more dangerous, according to Widman.

By looking at each generation of the virus as it spread from Africa through Asia to South America – Widman hopes his team can pinpoint what changed.

Then – as he puts it – the fun begins.

“We get to have some fun because now we get to make a targeted rational changes to the genome of these viruses and ask, ‘does this make the virus do much worse in mosquitoes or do much better in mosquitoes? Does it make it more pathogenic in mammals? Does it make it less pathogenic in mammals?'” Widman said.

Those answers are the key to vaccine development at UNC.

Widman said the frost coming later this year is our best ally against the virus. At least in the short term.

“I believe will see a peak in Zika cases. I don’t know exactly when that will be maybe it will be next summer, maybe it will be this summer,” Widman said. “But I don’t think that it will ever go away completely.”

The mosquitoes that spread Zika do live in North Carolina, but so far the virus is not spreading here.

But North Carolina Public Health officials are following cases of a handful of pregnant women who have either tested positive for Zika or received an indeterminate result.

Widman said wearing bug sprays and clearing areas with standing water in your yard is the best way to avoid Zika. Researchers also have found evidence Zika can be sexually transmitted.

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