Miami Versus Zika: South Florida Scientists Battle A Brazilian Epidemic

Feb 2, 2016

Mario Stevenson is a respected virus expert. He heads the infectious diseases division at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. He’s done pioneering research on HIV.

But until last year he’d barely registered Zika.

“Four months ago,” Stevenson told me, “I thought Zika was an Italian football player.”

He’s since learned Zika is a mosquito-borne virus – one that’s marauding so badly throughout Latin America and the Caribbean that the World Health Organization this week declared it a global health emergency.

RELATED: A Good Way To Stop Zika From Harming Latin American Babies: Stop Teen Pregnancy

Along the way, UM has assumed a major role in helping to stem it, starting in Stevenson’s lab at the school’s Life Science Building in Overtown. Among its efforts, WLRN got a first look at a new test Stevenson and his team have created that will diagnose Zika more quickly and reliably.

For Stevenson, the urgency can feel personal as well as clinical.

If he and other scientists were unfamiliar with Zika before, it’s because its symptoms are usually mild compared to similar but more serious tropical sicknesses like dengue. But one thing has made this Zika outbreak especially scary: It may be linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that results in abnormally small brains and heads. That tragic condition is suddenly being found in thousands of babies born to pregnant women infected with Zika.

Most are in Brazil – and Stevenson’s wife is from Northeast Brazil, where the epidemic has hit hardest.

“My wife’s cousin is expecting twins,” he says, “and she is terrified.”

People are living in fear. It's very difficult for them to protect themselves in areas where mosquitoes are just everywhere. –Mario Stevenson

She hasn’t been infected, but Stevenson is all too familiar with the anxiety.

“People are living in fear,” he says. “It’s very difficult for them to protect themselves in areas where mosquitoes are just everywhere. These are very wet tropical climates. There’s stagnant water everywhere.”

Stevenson, a Scotland native, met his wife while doing work on the HIV virus in Brazil. UM and Brazilian scientists have combated HIV together for years, and that collaborative relationship makes it less surprising that UM has moved forward on a better Zika detection test – which Brazilian doctors sorely need. It should arrive in the coming days.

“The test used [currently] to detect the virus unfortunately cannot distinguish dengue from Zika,” Stevenson says as he and an associate examine a royal blue dye containing the molecular process.

“This test does that. It amplifies the genetic information of the Zika.”

While Stevenson is working to expose the Zika virus, another UM researcher is laboring to expunge it.

Down the hall is pathology professor David Watkins. He too works closely with Brazil on viruses like HIV and dengue. And now: a Zika vaccine.

“This is the first time that Brazil has seen this virus,” says Watkins. “So nobody has any pre-existing immunity to it. And that probably is the reason that it is enjoying such explosive growth.”

UM Zika vaccine developer David Watkins with one of his Brazilian carnival costumes.
Credit Sammy Mack / WLRN.org

But this isn’t the first time Watkins has seen Zika. In fact, you could say he and Zika grew up on the same street. Watkins is the son of a Welsh tropical agronomist – and he was born in Uganda near the forest where the Zika virus was discovered some 70 years ago.

Watkins has a number of battle plans on the board.

“For example, we could take the envelope, the outer surface of Zika, and put it into the yellow fever vaccine,” he says.

Right now, Watkins is on at least half a dozen daily phone conferences with counterparts at Brazilian biomedical institutes like the Butantan in São Paulo. It helps that he speaks Portuguese – which also reflects his own fondness for Brazil.

“I would say,” Watkins admits, “that Brazil is my favorite country in the world” – and you need only look inside his office, which is filled with stunning samba costumes from past Rio de Janeiro Carnaval parades.

LOCAL TRANSMISSION

One of the Brazilians Watkins is brainstorming with is Dr. Esper Kallas, a vaccine expert at the University of São Paulo. Kallas says UM is helping Brazil “increase our capacity to confront this crisis.” But he notes the Brazilians are giving researchers like Watkins a better fix on how factors like global warming could lead to Zika infection in the U.S.

“The increase in temperature may set the stage for Aedes aegypti [the Zika-carrying mosquito] to spread northbound,” says Kallas. “I wouldn’t be much surprised if you find a local transmission of this virus within the year.”

Back in South Florida, many Brazilian expats like Vera Joffe, a São Paulo native and Coral Springs psychologist, say they’re ready to help. Joffe specializes in child development disorders and is keenly concerned about Brazil’s microcephaly outbreak.

“The Brazilian community here could help distribute reliable information to areas most affected,” says Joffe, “specifically to pregnant women and women who would like to get pregnant.”

Joffe also points to one of Brazil’s best known assets:

“Brazilian people are very resilient and they have a very positive way to face crisis.”

That’s something we may see this weekend – when Brazil’s annual Carnaval celebration starts amid the Zika sorrow.