The Zika Effect

Zika virusHaving worked on viruses for over 40 years, I know a fair number of people in the field, and I am amazed at how many of them have started to work on Zika virus. What exactly is attracting virologists to this emerging virus?

There are probably many reasons why Zika virus would be of interest to a research lab – what I call the Zika Effect – but here are what I think are the three main factors.

First, Zika virus has become medically important in the past year, as it has spread globally and is infecting many people each day. There are many unanswered questions about the virus, and for a scientist, there is nothing better than unanswered questions (except maybe getting money to answer the questions – see below). Because the virus is causing human disease, these questions have an immediacy – such as, does the virus cause birth defects; does the virus cross the placenta, and if so, how; how does the virus enter the central nervous system and cause disease, to name just a few. Because of the nature of Zika virus infection, the virus has attracted not only virologists, but neurobiologists, cell biologists, developmental biologists, and structural biologists. In short: scientists love answering questions, and when it comes to Zika virus, they are not in short supply.

Second, Zika virus is not dangerous to work with – a biosafety level 2 laboratory (BSL-2) is all that is needed. Most virologists carry out their work under BSL-2 containment, so if you are working on influenza virus, poliovirus, herpesvirus, and a host of other viruses, you are ready to work with Zika virus. This situation is in contrast to that which took place in 2015 with the ebolavirus outbreak in west Africa. Work on ebolavirus must be conducted under BSL-4 containment – which few virologists have access to (for a look inside a BSL-4 laboratory, check out the documentary Threading the NEIDL). Consequently far fewer laboratories began work on ebolaviruses after that outbreak.

The third reason for the Zika effect is the reward: the promise of a publication in a high profile scientific journal, a promotion, a new job, and new grant funding for the laboratory. Not the purest motivation, but a reality: in the United States, government funding of scientific research has been flat for so many years that any new opportunity is seized. Many laboratories are on the brink of extinction and reach out to any funding opportunity. Few will admit that funding or publication drives their interest in Zika virus, but there is no doubt that it is a major factor. If research money were plentiful, and if luxury journals were not so tightly linked to career success, there would likely be fewer entrants in the Zika race. And a race it is – at least in these early days, when low-hanging fruit is ripe for picking, papers roll out on a weekly basis and it is difficult to compete without a large research group.

The fact that so many laboratories are working on Zika virus is not only impressive but encouraging: it means that the scientific establishment is flexible and nimble. There is no doubt that the more minds engaged on a problem, the greater the chance that important questions will be answered. But working on Zika virus is not for the faint of heart – which I document on a weekly basis in Zika Diaries, a personal account of our foray into this seductive virus.

Federal funding for science research

Margaret K. Offermann, MD, PhD, President of FASEB, sent the following email:

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to consider the Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) bill that will provide fiscal year (FY) 2014 funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Although we don’t know when the House Appropriations Committee will vote on NIH funding, the spending limits in the House Budget Resolution could mean another 18 percent cut for biomedical research – below sequestration! NIH needs $32 billion in FY 2014 to prevent further erosion of the nation’s capacity for biomedical research and provide funding for additional grantees.

Please go to to email your Senators and Representatives today to urge them to support $32 billion for NIH in the FY 2014 LHHS Appropriations bill. When you are done sending your email, forward this alert to your friends and colleagues to make sure that the voice of the biomedical research community is heard across Capitol Hill!

FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) is the United States’ largest coalition of biomedical researchers, representing 27 scientific societies and over 110,000 researchers from around the world. FASEB is now recognized as the policy voice of biological and biomedical researchers.

The decreasing Federal support of biomedical research has had serious consequences for this important activity, well summarized in this Facebook post by a virology colleague:

July 1st, this coming year’s installment on both my AIDS grants came in, less 10% eaten by the Sequester Monster. I’m fortunate 1) to have funding at all, since NIH barely funds 10% of new grants, and 2) to have a hard money job (BC pays my salary). Most of my friends doing research in AIDS, cancer, drug addiction and infectious disease have to cover most or all of their salaries out of the same grants that support their research, such that cuts means they will lose their labs, and in some cases, their jobs (meanwhile, nations like China and Singapore continue to pump money into research, having learned from the US and Europe that innovation PAYS). I have had no less than FOUR desperate colleagues ask me this month what they are supposed to do now – four established, productive scientists that the US stands to lose. Four people that the US invested in, whose research will slow down or stop before those investments pay off. And no political finger pointing! The problems predate the current administration and both parties have their favorite ways to muddle up US science. Maybe it’s time to elect at least some scientists to office (from either party? Please?)? Instead of more MBAs, lawyers and career politicians?

The following information on science funding in the US was recently provided to virologists by David Sander:

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The NIH funding request is $31.3 billion in FY 2014, a 1.5 percent increase over FY 2012, but amounts to a real cut when inflation is considered. As compared to the FY 2012 enacted level, the budget supports 36,610 research project grants, an increase of 351.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC budget request is $6.6 billion, a decrease of $270 million from FY 2012. Emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases would receive $432 million, or a $70 million increase over FY 2012, including $40 million for the new Advanced Molecular Detection Initiative (AMD) to allow the CDC to “more quickly determine where emerging disease comes from, whether microbes are resistant to antibiotics and how microbes are moving through a population”
– $1.3 billion is proposed for public health preparedness and response, a decrease of $48 million from FY 2012, reducing funding to state and local health departments

National Science Foundation (NSF)

– $7.6 billion is proposed, a $520 million or 7.3 percent increase over FY 2012
– $6.2 billion is requested for research and related activities, an 8 percent increase.

Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) would receive $383 million or a $119 million increase over FY 2012, for competitive research grants.
– $1.3 billion is requested for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a $7 million decrease from FY 2012.
– $82 million is designated for research on zoonotic animal diseases and $119 million for food safety research

Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science

– $5.2 billion is requested, a $217 million or 4.4 percent increase over FY 2012

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Research

– $784 million is requested for Science and Technology, a $10 million reduction


No basic science for NIH?

bacteriophageThe new director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, has been scrutinized for his Evangelical Christian beliefs, which some think might influence his science policy. But there may be an even more serious problem with his leadership of the biggest supporter of scientific research in the United States.

A recent New York Times article focused on Collins’ religious beliefs. The following statement, which was buried in the article, worries me much more:

While acknowledging the importance of basic sciences like biochemistry and genetics, he said he wanted scientists to consider clinical or therapeutic implications in their work. “We’re not the National Institutes of Basic Sciences,” he said. “We’re the National Institutes of Health.”

Since its inception, the NIH has supported both clinical research, the kind that can make us healthier, and basic research, which might not ever have a ‘payoff’. But basic research – letting scientists pursue what interests them – often leads to practical advances. One example is the work on bacteriophages, plasmids, and restriction enzymes, seemingly only of academic interest, that lead to the field of recombinant DNA technology.

It’s very easy to identify medically important problems – cancer, diabetes, heart disease – but who is smart enough to know which obscure area of research will lead to improvement of human health? Often the most important advances come from unexpected beginnings.

If the NIH reduces its support of basic science, who will step in to fill the void? Or will there be no more research on insect viruses (which lead to novel ways to synthesize proteins in cells), viruses that protect aphids from fatal wasp stings, and the diverse and abundant viruses of the seas?