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Reporting On The Zika Virus Means Getting Up Close And Personal

Lindomar Pena, a virologist at a lab in Recife, Brazil, holds a box of vials used to store samples of the Zika virus in huge freezers.
Catherine Osborn
Lindomar Pena, a virologist at a lab in Recife, Brazil, holds a box of vials used to store samples of the Zika virus in huge freezers.

Every morning since I arrived in Brazil to cover the Zika outbreak, the first thing I do is douse myself with insect repellent before venturing outside.

I know the chances I'll catch Zika are pretty low, and the disease tends to be relatively mild for most healthy adult males. But with all the alarm about the virus, it's hard not to start to get a little paranoid about catching Zika from a mosquito.

Nevertheless, as I was wandering through Zika-infested neighborhoods to talk with women who had babies with birth defects that may have been caused by the virus, and doctors trying to help them, I found myself with an odd impulse:

I started to want to actually get close to the mysterious Zika virus — to see it somehow.

So I visited the biggest scientific laboratory nearby — the FIOCRUZ research center in Recife, Brazil.

There, I met Lindomar Pena, a virologist, one of hundreds of scientists in Brazil and around the world who are racing to learn as much as they can about the once obscure virus.

Pena agreed to introduce me to the Zika virus.

"We have this cryopreservation room," Pena said as he led me into a cramped room filled with huge freezers.

He pulled open the door to one freezer, snapped on a rubber glove and slid out a cardboard box covered in frost.

"In each box we have cryovials," he said.

There were dozens of these tiny plastic vials with orange caps. Each contained millions of samples of the virus obtained from human blood, semen, urine and spinal fluid, he said.

I asked him if it's dangerous to handle the virus.

"No, it is not," he assured me. "The virus is transmitted mainly by mosquito bite."

He quickly added: The lab is taking "extra caution" because the "routes of transmission" remain somewhat unclear.

"We know that the main route of transmission is through insect bite. But there are other possible routes, like sexual routes. So we still don't know. Because of this doubt, we are taking maximum precaution possible," he said.

Only the most experienced scientists handle the virus, he said. The researchers always wear protective gear. And they only study the pathogen in special rooms equipped with cabinets that prevent it from escaping.

Next, Pena took me to one of two small rooms set aside to study the Zika virus. He picked up a large plastic flask sitting in a tub of ice. At the bottom there was a pool of pinkish liquid.

"So this is a cell culture flask that has the Zika virus," he said, explaining that the flask contained monkey cells that have been infected with the virus for study. "We must have like 30 million virus in this flask. So it's lot of virus."

The lab needs a lot of virus for all the experiments being conducted. Scientists are performing a wide range of studies simultaneously, Pena said, including deciphering and analyzing the viral genes.

Scientists are also trying to understand how the virus might be causing birth defects known asmicrocephaly, which causes babies to be born with small heads and damaged brains. Others are analyzing the human immune response to the virus for clues that might help develop a vaccine and testing chemicals they hope could be used as anti-viral drugs to treat patients.

"I'm very optimistic because we have a lot of scientists working with Zika virus now. And the more people, the more scientists we have studying the virus, the faster to get an answer," he said.

And with that, I said goodbye to Pena — and the Zika virus — and headed back into the streets of Brazil.

But not before first dousing myself with more bug spray.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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