Researchers from La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) in San Diego, California, have recently identified a new mutation of the Zika virus known as the NS2B I39V/I39T mutation, which scientists are warning could spark the next global pandemic. Their findings echo recent warnings given by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this month, which explain that the virus has the potential to mutate in ways that would make it more virulent and more resistant to immunity conferred by similar infections.
What Is Zika Virus?
Zika virus is a viral infection that is spread via mosquitoes. The specific mosquito in question is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also is known to spread dengue and chikungunya. While the virus is mainly transmitted via bites, it can be transmitted through intrauterine infection as well.
The Zika virus was first detected in Uganda in 1947, where it was found only in monkeys. Five years after its discovery, the first human case of the Zika virus was detected. In the nearly 60 years that followed, the Zika virus was only detected in sporadic cases throughout the world.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the first true outbreak of the Zika virus was detected, this time on the island of Yap in the Pacific. In 2015, another major outbreak occurred in Brazil, which led to the discovery that Zika can be associated with microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with small and underdeveloped brains.
Now, with the discovery of a new, potentially more dangerous mutation, understanding the risk of the Zika virus is extremely important. Next, we’ll take a look at the dangers of the Zika virus, as well as the symptoms it can cause.
Is It Dangerous?
As previously mentioned, the major concern surrounding the Zika virus is the potential for microcephaly, especially for pregnant individuals who contract the virus. Typically, the Zika virus is not considered to be particularly dangerous to anyone other than those who are pregnant.
According to the WHO, certain countries with outbreaks of Zika virus, like Brazil, have reported a significant increase in the number of Guillian-Barre syndrome (GBS) cases, a neurological disorder that could lead to paralysis and death. A 2017 study conducted on confirmed cases of GBS in Brazil concluded that the fatality rate was about 8.3%. This relationship between Zika virus and Guillain-Barre syndrome is still relatively new to scientists, however, current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research suggests that GBS is strongly associated with Zika; however, only a small proportion of people with recent Zika virus infection get GBS.
While also not as common, the Zika virus can cause other symptoms following infection, which we will cover next.
Fortunately, the majority of people who contract the Zika virus do not develop any symptoms. When they do, however, most symptoms appear similar to those of the flu, with the majority of people reporting having fever, body ache, and headaches. The WHO says that these symptoms can typically be treated with common pain or fever medications, along with plenty of rest and hydration.
If symptoms worsen, it’s recommended that you seek medical attention immediately. Signs that you may need to see a doctor can include a rash, similar to that caused by dengue, or eye irritation.
Other common symptoms of Zika virus include:
- Joint pain
- Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
- Muscle pain
Typically, the incubation period for the Zika virus is about three to 14 days, with most cases lasting around the one to two-week mark. But, if the Zika virus isn’t considered to be “highly dangerous,” what makes scientists think it could cause another global pandemic? Let’s take a look.
Could This New Zika Virus Mutation Be the Next Global Pandemic?
While the majority of people who contract Zika virus have very minor, or no symptoms at all, researchers from LJI have concluded that the Zika virus can mutate very readily and quickly under the kinds of conditions that it might see in the real world—and in ways that would make it more virulent and more resistant to immunity conferred by similar infections.
Scientists performed the study, which was published in the journal Cell Reports, by observing how the Zika virus mutated as it moved between different cell lines and animals—specifically, cultured human cells, mosquitoes, and mice. This process mimics how the virus may move through different hosts in real life.
The team found that the Zika virus was able to easily make small mutations and pass from mosquitoes to mice. Furthermore, they found that the virus was able to adapt, even when certain cell lines had a previous immunity to a similar virus like dengue.
The study’s lead investigator, Prof Sujan Shresta, told the BBC, “the Zika variant that we identified had evolved to the point where the cross-protective immunity afforded by prior dengue infection was no longer effective in mice. Unfortunately for us, if this variant becomes prevalent, we may have the same issues in real life.”
While Shresta’s warnings sound grim, many experts have pointed out that Zika is much less threatening than other viruses that have caused global pandemics in the past, mainly COVID-19. This is because the Zika virus is much harder to transmit, and is far less contagious than COVID-19.
“This virus has the potential to be more dangerous to humans, but it has limited potential to be a COVID-level threat, because it’s primarily transmitted from insects to humans, not human to human,” said Dr. William Haseltine, a biologist renowned for his work in confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in a recent interview with Salon.
Simply put, since the Zika virus is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, it is much harder for it to spread rapidly throughout a given population, which also makes it easier to contain. That does not mean, however, that there is no cause for concern.
“It is difficult to predict what the future of this disease threat will be, but it is concerning and representative of the many emerging infectious threats out there,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “If we let our guard down and are only concerned about COVID-19 we will miss the next big outbreak.”
So, while the Zika virus may not be the next COVID-19, it is still something that should be taken seriously. If the last two and a half years have taught us anything, it’s that viral outbreaks need to be monitored, and when they arise, they should be contained and treated accordingly.