Researchers have warned that a new Zika virus outbreak is entirely possible, and a single mutation may be enough to cause an explosive spread.
The disease caused a global medical emergency in 2016, as thousands of babies were born with brain damage after their mothers were infected during pregnancy.
American scientists say the world should be on the lookout for new mutations.
Laboratory work, described in the scientific journal Cell Reports, indicates that the virus can easily mutate, creating new variants.
Recent infection studies suggest that these variants may be effective in transmitting the virus, even in countries that have built immunity to previous Zika outbreaks, says the team at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology.
Experts said the findings, while theoretical, are intriguing – and a reminder that viruses other than those that cause Covid can pose a threat.
Virus changes shape
Zika is transmitted by the bites of infected Aedes mosquitoes. The insects are found throughout the Americas – with the exception of Canada and Chile, where it is too cold for them to survive – and throughout Asia.
Although for most people Zika is a mild illness with no lasting effects, it can have serious consequences for babies still in the womb.
If the mother becomes infected with the virus during pregnancy, it can harm the developing fetus, causing microcephaly and brain tissue damage.
- Although the virus is mainly transmitted by mosquitoes, it can also be transmitted through sexual contact;
- Few people die from Zika, and only one in five infected people is believed to have symptoms. They may include fever, rash, and joint pain.
- Since there is no treatment, the only option is to reduce the risk of being bitten by the insect;
- Scientists have begun work on a Zika vaccine to help protect pregnant women.
The researchers reworked what happens when Zika is transmitted between mosquitoes and humans, using live cells and mice in their experiments.
When the Zika virus moved between the cells of mosquitoes and mice in the lab, small genetic changes occurred.
This means that Zika was relatively easy to mutate in a way that allows the virus to thrive and spread, even in animals that had some previous immunity to an infection carried by the same mosquito: dengue.
“The type of Zika we have identified has evolved to the point where the protective immunity provided by previous dengue infection is no longer effective in mice,” said study lead author Professor Sujan Shrestha.
“Unfortunately for us, if this alternative becomes mainstream, we may face the same problems in real life.”
Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, said: “We’ve heard a lot about the rapid development and emergence of coronavirus variants recently, but this is a timely reminder that morphing is a common resource shared by many viruses.” , to BBC.
“This work shows how quickly a single-letter change can occur in the genome sequence of a virus and the powerful impact it can have on a virus’s ability to cause disease. But viruses that share these changes are not often seen in outbreaks. And, the authors note, the authors note. These intriguing ideas require further investigation.”
Claire Taylor of the Society for Applied Microbiology warns that “while these results have been observed in laboratory experiments and therefore have limitations, they show that there is potential for worrisome variables to emerge during the normal transmission cycle of Zika virus and remind us that monitoring is important to keep abreast of viruses as they evolve.”
She says it may be possible to predict the variables that could cause major problems in the future and intervene early.
Professor Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said previous Zika infections may still provide some protection against new variants – as seen with Covid.
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