Folmsbee: Zika virus shows why basic research matters


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Disease is, for the most part, predictable. Throughout human history, we have described ailments of infection, cancer, aging and more, and although our terminology may have changed, our fundamental physiology has not. In medicine, there is always more to learn about the pathogenesis and treatment of diseases, but these illnesses themselves no longer surprise us. Still, every once in awhile, something new appears. Over the past few months, the Zika virus has spread throughout parts of South America, and although its rapid genesis may be alarming, we should not be fearful. It should instead serve as a reminder of how dependent we are on basic science to deal with these emerging threats.

The rise of the Zika virus has been remarkable. It began in Brazil, where there were reports of an increased number of children being born with microcephaly, a rare but severe birth defect defined by poor development of the head. This suggested an association with infection of the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitos indigenous to the region. Its rise has been so severe that the World Health Organization has declared it a global public health emergency, and there have even been confirmed cases in Illinois. Most troubling though, because of the Zika virus’ novelty, there is no vaccine yet available.

Although fear has spread to the United States, what we know about the virus is not that concerning. We know only about 20 percent of those infected with the Zika virus actually show symptoms and, when they do, they are often mild and flu-like. We know the virus can only be spread by the mosquitos found in South America, and migration of the virus and mosquitos north to the U.S. is unlikely. We know once infected, transmission to others can only occur through blood or sexual contact. But what we do not know is much more troubling. The true connection between viral infection and the risk of microcephaly has not been defined, and it will still be weeks until we can definitely link them. And most importantly, the ultimate, long-term effects of the spread of Zika, as well as how we will treat or prevent it, are entirely unknown.

In this way, the rise of the Zika virus perfectly illustrates why we need robust basic scientific research. Imagine being a scientist studying flaviviruses, the family that Zika belongs to, just a few months prior to this outbreak. Imagine the difficulties in getting funding in studying viruses that only cause rare diseases in humans. Consider what we could have learned about this virus: how it replicates, how it infects cells or how it interacts with the physiology of the mosquito. Instead, researchers are having to investigate these things after the virus has become a public health emergency. In these cases, it seems our lack of interest in such obscure scientific topics, combined with our lack of foresight, have truly limited our medical options when we need them most.

This is exactly what happened during the emergence of HIV in the 1980s. Before then, retroviruses such as HIV represented an incredibly small portion of those that contributed to human disease. Only a fraction of virologists even cared about retroviruses at all. But when HIV struck, the work of those few scientists became more important than ever. The reason why we have highly effective antiretroviral drugs today — treatments that have turned what used to be a death sentence into a chronic illness — is because of the baseline work researchers were doing before we even knew HIV was going to be an epidemic.

And now, the same process is occurring again with the Zika virus, although on a much smaller, less severe scale. Biomedical research is important in understanding human health and disease, but what is more controversial is the scientific investigation into aspects of biology not yet relevant to disease. Competition for government grants has grown tighter than ever, and avenues of investigation are constantly being dropped for more fundable, disease-relevant topics. The public needs to encourage more and better funding for all science, even that which may not seem necessary right now because the past has already taught us that the unexpected is not always so benign as the already insidious Zika virus.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.