As the Zika virus rages through South and Central America, probably causing women to give birth to babies with abnormally small heads, few people understand that the virus has its origins in Africa. And even fewer realize that the man who originally discovered the virus 70 years ago, Alexander John Haddow, has a Frederick and a Fort Detrick connection.
Sadly, relatively little research has been done since the Zika virus was discovered in 1947 by Haddow, says his grandson, Andrew D. Haddow, a researcher who followed his ancestor’s footpath and now works in the virology division at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.
Haddow said he is hoping his grandfather’s pioneering work from back then will inspire lifesaving research today.
“One of the problems with this virus right now is that we honestly don’t know a lot,” Andrew Haddow said Tuesday.
Scientists do know that the Zika virus spreads via mosquitoes that bite humans. In fact it spreads via the Aedes africanus mosquito, which the elder Haddow was researching in a small forest barely a square mile in size in Uganda — the Zika forest. Indeed the Aedes africanus tends to live where it can bite plenty of monkeys. In 1947, one of Haddow’s test subjects, a rhesus monkey, was bitten by a mosquito in the forest and developed a fever. The virus Haddow and his colleagues discovered in that infected monkey was named “Zika,” for the Ugandan forest.
Raised on research
When he was growing up, Andrew Haddow’s bedtime stories were filled with his grandfather’s adventures through Uganda and his father’s childhood days there.
“I knew from the time that I was like 3, 4, that I wanted to be a researcher,” Andrew D. Haddow said.
Despite knowing his career path, he didn’t find his true calling until he enrolled in a program at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the same school that gave his grandfather medals and awards for his research.
At the London school, something clicked.
“It was just like that, instantly,” he said. “Everything came together.”
Andrew D. Haddow dove into the scientific study of insects and arboviruses, which are viruses transmitted by certain kinds of insects.
He went to the University of Texas’ Institute for Human Infections and Immunity in Galveston, where he made a serendipitous discovery — a sample of Zika virus from his grandfather’s lab.
The sample had been untouched for decades.
“I thought somebody would have worked on it since then,” he said.
Picking up the torch
In a storage room inside a USAMRIID lab labeled “Insectary,” the temperature is set to about 28 degrees Celsius, or 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
The humidity in the room is 90 percent — stifling compared with a Mid-Atlantic winter, but perfect for swamp-loving mosquitoes.
Plastic tubs labeled “Aedes aegypti” and “Aedes albopictus,” mosquito species known for their ability to spread yellow fever and dengue fever, appear to be filled with tiny black specks. The specks are young mosquitoes, which Andrew D. Haddow and others at USAMRIID maintain in case they’re needed for research.
Andrew D. Haddow and others believe the species spreading the Zika virus in the current outbreak are Aedes egypti and Aedes albopictus. They published those findings in 2012, marking a discovery of his own.
In the 2012 publication, they warned that Zika would likely be “greatly misdiagnosed and underreported” because of the disease’s similarities to the symptoms of other tropical infectious diseases.
Though health officials in the Americas have been increasingly vigilant of Zika cases during the current outbreak, the virus can be tricky to detect in humans.
Measuring the outbreak
According to the World Health Organization, as many as 4 million people could be infected with the Zika virus by the end of 2016.
Zika cases have been confirmed in Barbados, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, among many other countries. A handful of Americans traveling back to the U.S. from infected areas have been diagnosed with the disease, including one case in Virginia.
The organization has declared the Zika outbreak a global public health emergency, requiring a global response.
The organization’s Emergency Committee has not found justification to restrict travel or trade to prevent the spread of the disease, but does recommend controlling mosquito populations and preventing at-risk people from getting mosquito bites.
There is currently no vaccine for the Zika virus.
USAMRIID will play a supporting role in the U.S. response to the Zika outbreak, while the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will generally direct research efforts.
According to a spokeswoman, the Naval Medical Research Center Biological Defense Research Directorate at Fort Detrick has “no direct funded efforts” in Zika research.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Facility at Fort Detrick also does not currently have plans to work with Zika.
However, researchers at the institute’s Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda are involved with research on the Zika virus.
The disease may be connected to microcephaly, or abnormally small head size, in babies born to pregnant women infected with the disease, according to the CDC.
But a link between an increase of microcephaly cases and Zika cases in Brazil has not been confirmed, according to a Jan. 13 commentary on the virus from Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“It is critically important to confirm or dispel a causal link between Zika infection of pregnant women and the occurrence of microcephaly by doing intensive investigative research,” the commentary stated.
While USAMRIID awaits its marching orders, Andrew D. Haddow and his fellow researchers will continue the work they’ve done in the arena of emerging arboviruses.
“We’re trying to figure out what is going to be the next Zika,” he said.