With fears growing that the Zika virus could turn into a global emergency and the epidemic become worse than Ebola, an Israeli scientist has stepped up his work to try to understand why this seemingly innocuous arbovirus has turned into such a devastating epidemic.

In October last year, Brazil sounded the alarm when it experienced a rash of microcephaly cases, a devastating condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain. Since then, there have been 270 confirmed cases, and 3,448 suspected cases, compared with just 147 in 2014.

The virus is now spreading explosively through the Americas, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In Brazil, 1.5 million people have been infected, and on Saturday, Colombia’s National Health Institute announced that more than 2,100 pregnant Colombian women are infected with the mosquito-borne virus.

There are now cases in 23 countries around the world, including El Salvador, which has warned women to avoid pregnancy until 2018, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

Earlier this week, WHO convened an emergency committee to discuss the pandemic expected to affect three to four million people, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned pregnant women to avoid visiting countries where Zika has been reported.

In response to this deepening crisis, Israeli virologist Dr. Leslie Lobel and a handful of colleagues around the world are stepping up their research of Zika and other arboviruses.

“We want to identify what’s different there in terms of the comprehensive immune response, viral genetics and host genetics,” explains Lobel. “Why, after 60-plus years, has this virus pathology started to change and spread?”

A panoramic view of the Zika Forest in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Dr. Leslie Lobel
A panoramic view of the Zika Forest in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Dr. Leslie Lobel

Lobel has worked for several years with Ugandan scientists who have been collecting insects in the Zika Forest of Uganda to study the viruses they carry. Recently they have been investigating if arboviruses have any impact on other serious diseases such as deadly Ebola and Marburg viruses, Lobel’s main area of research.

Now the main head-scratcher is why relatively mild arboviruses like Zika suddenly seem to be causing bigger problems. Until the present outbreak, there has been no need to find a treatment for Zika infection as it causes only mild fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis for about a week.

“Zika emerged in Uganda in 1947, but it’s been very benign and nobody was interested in investigating arbovirus deeply,” Lobel tells ISRAEL21c from his lab in the department of microbiology, immunology and genetics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“Then came the association between Zika and microcephaly in Brazil, which is not proven yet. This is low-hanging fruit for us, because the Zika Forest is right next to our lab in Uganda,” says Lobel.

Lobel travels with fellow investigator Dr. John Dye of the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, and other members of his lab, to Uganda about four times a year to study antibodies from blood samples of survivors of Ebola and Marburg with the aim of developing a therapeutic approach.

Lobel recently started examining blood samples of people infected with Zika in Uganda and is collaborating with a group from Sao Paulo State to investigate the Zika viral strains found in Brazil.

Lobel’s lab will also be involved in a consortium of about 10 virology and immunology labs in Europe, South America and the United States hoping to prove or disprove a direct connection between the virus and birth defects. They will investigate whether the virus itself or the host genetics — or perhaps both — are different in Brazil than in Africa.

Funding for this research is likely to be made available more quickly due to the February 1 declaration by the World Health Organization that the clusters of brain-damaged babies in Brazil constitute a public-health emergency of international concern.

“We’re at the beginning stage. I think this caught the world by surprise,” says Lobel, who has been studying serious viral diseases in Uganda since 2003. “The hysteria is out there before the science.”

Only if they can demonstrate scientifically that there is a cause and effect between infection with Zika and microcephaly will there be a need to research treatment approaches, he says.

Given the clear association between viral infection and microcephaly, however, Lobel suggests that people need to take medical advice seriously.

“We want to use Zika virus as a model to look at other viruses that might have changing pathology,” he says.

Insects collected in the Zika Forest. Photo courtesy of Dr. Leslie Lobel
Insects collected in the Zika Forest. Photo courtesy of Dr. Leslie Lobel

Lobel says the insect collections in Uganda began in the 1930s to study the ecosystem of yellow fever virus, an arbovirus still active in Africa. A tower was constructed as part of the East African Virus Institute (now the Uganda Virus Research Institute) so that scientists could collect insects every 10 meters in height above the floor of the forest.

“Many significant viral diseases have emerged from Uganda, including HIV and West Nile. My Ugandan colleagues and I built up the lab and our research work there, and in 2010 I invited a US military group to join us.”

Their research is funded by grants. But Lobel says that governments must allocate more funding to infectious disease research, and medical schools must encourage more students to specialize in virology, because infectious disease will become even more problematic in coming years.

“Insect-borne viruses are very affected by global warming,” he says. “The territory of the insects grows as the climate warms up.”

This article was updated on February 2, 2016.