Opinion: The Zika Effect

Three reasons why virologists are flocking to study this emerging virus

May 27, 2016
Vincent Racaniello

WIKIMEDIA, D. SIROHI ET AL.Having worked on viruses for over 40 years, I know a fair number of people in the field, and I am amazed at how many of them have started to work on Zika virus. What exactly is attracting virologists to this emerging virus?

There are probably many reasons why Zika virus would be of interest to a research lab—what I call the “Zika effect”—but here are what I think are the three main factors.

First, Zika virus has become medically important in the past year, as it has spread globally and is infecting many people each day. There are many unanswered questions about the virus, and for a scientist, there is nothing better than unanswered questions (except, maybe, getting money to answer the questions—see below). Because the virus is causing human disease, these questions have an immediacy: Does the virus cause birth defects? Does the virus cross the placenta and, if so, how? How does the virus enter the central nervous system and cause disease? Because of the nature of Zika virus infection, the virus has attracted not only virologists, but neurobiologists, cell biologists, developmental biologists, and structural biologists. In short: scientists love answering questions, and when it comes to Zika virus, questions are not in short supply.

Second, Zika virus is not dangerous to work with; a biosafety level 2 laboratory (BSL-2) is all that is needed. Most virologists carry out their work under BSL-2 containment, so if you are working on influenza virus, poliovirus, herpesvirus, and a host of other viruses, you are ready to work with Zika virus. This situation is in contrast to that which took place in 2015 with the Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa. Work on Ebola virus must be conducted under BSL-4 containment, which few virologists have access to. Consequently, far fewer laboratories began work on ebolaviruses after that outbreak.

The third reason for the Zika effect is the potential reward—the promise of a publication in a high-profile scientific journal, a promotion, a new job, and new grant funding for the laboratory. Not the purest motivation, but a reality: in the United States, government funding of scientific research has been flat for so many years that any new opportunity is seized. Many laboratories are on the brink of extinction and reach out to any funding opportunity. Few will admit that funding or publication drives their interest in Zika virus, but there is no doubt that these are a major factor. If research money were plentiful, and if luxury journals were not so tightly linked to career success, there would likely be fewer entrants in the Zika race. And a race it is—at least in these early days, when low-hanging fruit is ripe for picking, papers roll out on a weekly basis, and it is difficult to compete without a large research group.

The fact that so many laboratories are working on Zika virus is not only impressive, but encouraging. It means that the scientific establishment is flexible and nimble. There is no doubt that the more minds engaged on a problem, the greater the chance that important questions will be answered. But working on Zika virus is not for the faint of heart, which I document on a weekly basis at the American Society for Microbiology blog The Zika Diaries, a personal account of our foray into this seductive virus.

Vincent Racaniello is Higgins Professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University in New York City. This post was originally published May 26 on his Virology Blog.