While the Zika virus has been busy grabbing headlines as a public health menace that seemingly came out of nowhere, it is in fact just the latest iteration of viruses from a family called flaviviruses to rear its head as a public health menace. Flaviviruses stealthily adapt quickly to changing environments to infect the human population.

“Today, it’s Zika virus. Yesterday it was West Nile virus and chikungunya virus,” said Kevin Myles, an associate professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate. “It’s always going to be something and you can’t predict what it’s going to be next. So what you have to do is develop a sound research infrastructure that’s in place and ready to go so you can rapidly respond to the next threat.”

That’s exactly what Myles and colleague Zach Adelman, also an associate professor of entomology and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, are doing in their labs.

The flavivirus family also includes other important pathogens, such as yellow fever virus and four different dengue viruses.

Myles and Adelman will now begin work on Zika virus.

“Viruses evolve very rapidly, especially these types of viruses because they are RNA viruses,” said Myles. “In fact, the traditional definition of a species doesn’t even apply to a RNA virus. They actually exist as what’s called a quasi-species, which can be thought of as a swarm of RNA sequences. This allows these viruses to adapt to a changing environment very rapidly.”

Zika virus has infected a growing number of Americans over the past few months, and the disease may cause a birth defect called microcephaly, in which infected pregnant women give birth to brain-damaged babies with abnormally tiny heads.

While Zika had only previously been associated with mild symptoms in humans, it may produce more severe symptoms in areas where the virus has been recently introduced because populations have no pre-existing immunity.

Myles pointed out that the development of a vaccine is paramount to resolving the current public health crisis. However, other tools, such as new strategies for vector control, for example gene drives, should also be explored to prevent future viral outbreaks.

One application of gene drive might involve genetically engineering a mosquito to either increase or decrease its immunity to a virus; the mosquito would either never become infected or would die quickly before it could transmit the virus to another host. Of course there are also more conventional approaches to vector control, which would involve regional, state, or national organization participation in coordinated spraying.

Read about more actions you can take to protect yourself from Zika virus here.

Photo Credit: CDC/James Gathawy