GLOBAL ALARM

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientist said Friday that his lab has been selected by the federal government to study the Zika virus and seek a vaccine or medication to fight it.

Asit Pattnaik, a professor at the Nebraska Center for Virology, said his lab certainly isn't the only one in the country aiming to defeat the Zika virus. But the outbreak is so fresh that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is seeking help from various experts to fight the disease.

Meanwhile, another UNL researcher, Daniel Brooks, said the Zika virus exemplifies how climate change could have major public health implications for the United States. The primary Zika virus carrier, a kind of mosquito comfortable in tropical and sub-tropical zones, could easily come north as the planet warms up, he said.

"There's no way to keep mosquitoes out," Brooks said Friday. "They don't recognize national boundaries."

The virus has infected hundreds of thousands of people in South American nations, Caribbean islands, Latin America and elsewhere. Health officials on Thursday confirmed two cases in young women in the Omaha area who had returned from traveling in Zika-affected countries. Texas authorities this week reported a case of sexual transmission of the virus, and Brazilian authorities confirmed a case contracted through a blood transfusion from an infected donor.

Although the Zika virus generally causes mild illness or no symptoms whatsoever, health authorities believe it has played a role in a booming number of cases of microcephaly in Brazil. Microcephaly is a condition in which babies are born with small heads and brain damage. The CDC advises pregnant women to avoid traveling to Zika-affected places, which include Brazil, Mexico, the Virgin Islands and many others.

Pattnaik said the CDC soon will fly out two droplets containing the virus in dry ice. One is from the CDC and one from Puerto Rico. He then will grow large amounts of the virus in a containment facility that will protect the public from accidental exposure. He will work on the project with colleagues Shi-hua Xiang and Gustavo Delhon, who, like Pattnaik, also have appointments in UNL's school of veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences. Graduate students also will work with them.

The Nebraska Center for Virology includes scientists from UNL, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University. The center is on UNL's East Campus.

Pattnaik said the first goal is to grow the virus and study its properties. Scientists "need to know more about this before we can attack it," he said. It's too early to say whether the Nebraska Center for Virology will collaborate or compete with other institutions, he said.

"At this time we are working on our own," Pattnaik said.

He said other institutions such as the University of Texas Medical Branch and the CDC's Fort Collins, Colorado, lab probably are working on it. Other news publications have cited the Maryland-based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Washington University in St. Louis, and Southern Research in Alabama as places that have or will conduct research on the Zika virus.

President Barack Obama this week called for rapid work on tests, vaccines and treatments to fight the virus.

Pattnaik said the Nebraska Center for Virology has done studies and developed technology to create a vaccine against porcine respiratory and reproductive syndrome virus. "We have done this kind of work in the past," he said. "We have the expertise."

Still, he said, the scientists will have to dig in before understanding whether a vaccine or anti-viral medicine is the more likely product to come from the work. He said it would take a year or two to see if the center has a solid finding, which could be followed by clinical trials that would take additional months or years.

Brooks, whose primary work is in climate change and emerging diseases, said multiple factors conspire to bring the Zika virus and other diseases to the United States. This nation can no longer hide in an "artificial bubble," he said.

Finding vaccines and medications is an expensive solution, he said, and until those are found, it makes sense to drain swamps that are close to humans, remove standing water and possibly fog areas with insecticides.

Organisms unknown to the United States and other places will move in as the climate changes, he said. Furthermore, human overpopulation is placing people in areas that they hadn't previously inhabited, exposing them to different organisms. And the increasing prevalence of global transportation means crops, livestock and people carry disease from place to place.

Some of this has been happening for years, he said, but it's occurring more commonly. Brooks is a senior research fellow with UNL's H.W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology.

"The problem is that this is all very complicated," Brooks said. "All the easy (health) problems have been solved. And all we have left now are these complicated things."

Contact the writer: rick.ruggles@owh.com 402-444-1123, twitter.com/rickruggles

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